If you’re a fairly open-minded, accepting person then you might think you don’t need to worry about biases. After all, surely only those who are racist, sexist and judgmental should be described as biased, right? Unfortunately, it turns out that we are all susceptible to certain common, illogical cognitive biases that have the potential to skew every decision we make. However, learning about them brings them to conscious awareness and tends to reduce their power. Here are ten particularly common biases, along with some tips for overcoming them.
We tend to place too much emphasis on the first bit of information we receive about a topic under discussion. For example, studies show that the person who makes the first offer in a salary negotiation is the one who establishes what financial range is considered reasonable. Studies have shown, in general, humans don’t like change. This bias might also crop up when you hear about a controversial issue for the first time. So, the next time you read an opinion piece, try to seek out sources that offer a different perspective, and be aware that you might irrationally trust the first article to a disproportionate degree.
We’re inclined to interpret random events as indicating a pattern. This bias is probably behind a lot of assumptions that we’re “fated” to be with a certain person or follow a certain career path. While this approach can help us find meaning in our lives, it can also lead to negative outcomes—like losing bets at a casino. If, for example, we think black is either more or less likely to turn up in roulette after we’ve seen black come up several times, that’s the clustering illusion at work. In reality, the probability of black coming up remains the same regardless of any perceived pattern.
You’re probably already aware that being in a group can make you think differently. Research backs this up — the more people believe something, the more likely it is that others in the group will begin to believe the same thing. Most of us have seen this in action at meetings! One thing you can do to reduce the impact of the bandwagon effect is to note down your own main beliefs and ideas before entering group meetings, and refer to those throughout (rather than making up your mind solely in response to the other speakers).
We’re prone to evaluating whether a decision was good or bad based on how it turned out. If you lazily decide to sleep in and then end up meeting your future spouse on a later train, you might think it was a smart idea to slack off on work. However, the favorable outcome doesn’t make the decision itself a good one—refusing to adhere to official work hours isn’t a respectful or wise way to approach your career, and therefore a bad decision (even though it led to a good outcome). This was a particularly damaging bias in the early days of medicine.
Our preconceived ideas and expectations actually change how we perceive events. One study exploring the selective perception bias in football found that fans of one team were far more likely to perceive the opposing team as breaking the rules more often. It’s thought that this bias is truly about our perceptual abilities, not just about what we’ll say—after all, in this study, the participants knew that their judgements would not influence the final decision about the winner.
Many of us would rather eliminate all possibility of risk (thereby securing certainty) than we would take a productive risk. This can lead us to miss out all kinds of life-improving opportunities and adventures, just because they don’t come with a guarantee of safety. This can hamper progress in significant ways as complete elimination of risk is very hard. A real life examples include advances in food additive science and banking reforms.
If we have direct access to a piece of information, we’re likely to think it’s more important than it really is. Think of those who claim that cigarettes isn’t really that harmful because their old grandad lived to age 108 in spite of chain smoking. Do your best to be open to the evidence others have amassed as well, and know that you’re likely overestimating the weight of your own evidence.
When we can easily recognize certain vivid or striking features of some person, event or object, we tend to focus on that concept instead of things that might be more likely or significant. So, if you spend more time worrying about dying in a plane crash than having a heart attack, that’s the salience bias driving your anxieties.
As media coverage of negative events rises in the modern day, the Salience bias becomes more prevalent
When you’ve chosen something for yourself, you’re more likely to feel positively about it and even overlook its downsides. This applies to pet choice, for example, and may sometimes be a blessing in disguise in that type of case! However, the same bias can stop you from being fully aware of the negative impact that a job, partner or friend has on your well-being.
Finally, we often look at surviving examples in a way that stops us from making realistic judgements. You might, say, think it’s easy to start your own business because you simply haven’t heard about those who failed. Meanwhile, you might think that all relationship that stem from affairs will fail, because those whose successful relationships began in affairs may be reticent to reveal the origins of their bond.
Alexander is a full-time freelance writer with a passion for positive and sustainable living. He is interested in writing about the effective habits and techniques people can use to live a happy and healthy life in both body and mind.