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Cognitive Biases – 7 Common Types of Bias and How to Spot Them

“Your mind constantly seeks proof that will confirm your beliefs. If you have negative beliefs, your mind will seek to prove those negative thoughts. If you have positive beliefs, your mind will seek to prove those positive thoughts. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of our beliefs.” ~ Akiroq Brost

Let’s face it. It’s getting harder every day to make sense of the increasingly propagandised, hypersonic news cycle and social media memory hole madness. To this end, we must rely more than ever on our own sense of discernment and well-grounded common sense.

But how do we know we can even trust what we think is our own ‘sound’ judgement?

Like everything else in this topsy-turvy world, is it possible that our cognitive senses are leading us up the wrong garden path too?

The answer is, ‘well, yes, probably!’.

But it doesn’t happen all the time, and to help you spot when it is happening, here are seven of the most common forms of cognitive bias that I think you should know about – without being too biased, hopefully.😉

1. Confirmation Bias

We’ve all heard the expression, ‘people tend to believe what they want to believe’.

Seeking to confirm our beliefs is natural. Not only does it save time and energy, but it’s pretty easy to do. That’s why it feels counterintuitive when we ask ourselves to challenge our subconsciously embedded beliefs.

But now and again, it has to be done.

Sometimes, our innate biases work against our interests (and others). For example, if you are inclined to be overly sensitive, you might view the normal behaviour of a friend in a negative light. You think you spotted a nano-sized micro-aggression and feel snubbed. Then, you go on to compound your initial mistake by looking for further proof to reinforce your original error. In fact, you may even end up annoying your buddy so much that you create a whopping great self-fulfilling prophecy!

Likewise, people prone to overly wishful optimistic behaviour might interpret otherwise clearly negative signs incorrectly. For example, when it comes to health issues or addictive behaviour (e.g. gambling, drugs, smoking, drinking, etc.), they tend to act in a delusional, self-denying way, or at best, with a massive dollop of procrastination, that hinders them from making the right lifestyle changes – sometimes until it’s too late. Eeek!

How to spot it 🔍

It’s not just optimists and pessimists. We can all fall foul of confirmation bias. It’s no sin.

But the first thing you need to do is be aware of the possibility of being wrong. There are always unknown unknowns. Right? After that, it’s a good idea to look for contradictory evidence that counters your hard-wired narrative and test it rigorously against your beliefs, information and logic.

If you are still in doubt, seek the opinion of a variety of trusted friends and family – ideally, those with different outlooks and experiences – people you know will give you a straight and honest answer.

2. Anchoring Bias

Have you ever been shopping for a cool pair of trainers or funky boots?

Saw some you liked but decided to carry on looking for another better pair for the next two hours, only to return to the original shop and buy the first pair you saw?

That’s anchoring bias at work.

When making a decision, we tend to use an ‘anchor’ (or ‘focus’ point), and more often than not, it’s the first bit of useable information we come across on any particular issue.

If you think about it, we do it all the time, not just when we are out shopping for trendy footwear. But in our daily lives, things like where our pets are allowed to go in the house – usually based on what was acceptable when we were growing up, how much money we are prepared to pay for our holidays, haircuts and Hoovers!

How to spot it 🔍

Once you become aware of anchoring bias and how it works, it’s much easier to spot when you are doing it.

The trick is to consider the possible impact of the anchoring effect.

For example, when you are on your way back to the shop to buy those oh-so-funky boots or deciding that the dog can sleep on your bed (because your parents allowed it when you were a kid), make sure you have factored it in and assessed ALL the other relevant information available before making a final decision. (And then go get those cool boots!)

3. Herd Mentality AKA Peer Pressure and Group Think

Herd mentality is the tendency we have as humans to conform to the beliefs and behaviours of a group, often at the expense of our own opinions or instincts.

And it’s extremely common.

You see it all the time, at sports events, music concerts, on Black Fridays, and down the pub on a Saturday night. It’s so common that we don’t even notice it most of the time.

Gustave le Bon wrote about it in his book ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’. In short, he noticed that groups acted less intelligently than the individuals within them, and, equally worryingly, that the group behaviour ‘spreads like wildfire’ and that when in the grip of herd mentality, groups tend to become aggressive to other ‘rival’ ones!

Football hooligans, anyone?

(Obviously, there is a lot more to ‘Herd Mentality’, so if you want to know more about it and the work of Gustave le Bon, check out this article here.)

How to spot it 🔍

Take a step back and think about why you are acting in a specific way. Ask yourself some or all of these questions:

  • Are you acting on autopilot? (Because everyone else around you is doing it?)
  • Does it feel right or wrong?
  • Are you doing it just to ‘fit in’ with the crowd?
  • Is it something you really want to do for its own merits?
  • Are you feeling pressured into doing it, and is it making you feel stressed and uncomfortable?

And lastly,

Ask yourself, “would I do it if no one else was doing it or watching me?”

4. Overconfidence Bias

The overconfidence bias makes us think we are better at something than we are.

It can be anything from driving too fast, overestimating our ability at a sport, completing a task at work, or even making a soufflé in the kitchen! Suffice it to say; it can be extremely dangerous and, of course, produce some disastrous soufflés!

‘Experts’ have broken it down into three key types:

  1. Overestimation – when people THINK they are better at doing something than they are!
  2. Over-precision – when people THINK they know more about a subject than everyone else!
  3. Over-placement – when people are overconfident because they THINK they are just ‘smarter’ than everyone else!

(n.b. A close relative for #3, ‘Over-placement,’ is the Dunning Kruger Effect. Again, if you want to learn more about it, check out this post)

How to spot it 🔍

It’s most likely to reveal its ugly head when you are doing something challenging and stressful, i.e. estimating how much an important project will cost, etc. Or when you are involved in a specific task that, in truth, is above your level of knowledge, skill and competence.

The key is to identify any of these different elements and put the brakes on before you make a humungous great mistake! You can do this by a) Keeping an open mind to the possibility that you are not as good as you think you are at something – or smarter than everyone else, b) Reflect on past mistakes made in similar situations and learnings, and c) Most importantly; listen to feedback from others.

5. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is the shy inverse twin of the Overconfidence Bias.

It’s when you are involved in a task (or role) but have feelings of self-doubt and a general lack of faith in your skills and ability – and, more often than not, think your peers are better than you. The fact that you are seemingly coping as well as you are, you just put down to luck rather than skill, and other people’s blind spots and mistaken opinions about your ability.

This pattern of thinking is especially prevalent in high-stress, high-stakes, competitive environments. And also, unsurprisingly, very common in perfectionists and high achievers – who tend to migrate to roles where these elements prevail!

As you might imagine, there are quite a few different types. I won’t list them all, but the more common ones are; the Workaholic Imposter, the Lucky Duck Imposter, the Chameleon, and the Procrastinator. (I think the names are fairly self-explanatory.)

Anyway, regardless of the particular ‘flava’, people suffering from Imposter Syndrome, especially over long periods, are very likely to struggle with anxiety, depression and stress-related illnesses, and eventually, burnout, leave their job and live as reclusive hermits in a cave on a desert island.

Just kidding about the island bit.

How to spot it 🔍

We all have moments when we doubt ourselves. It’s normal. But sometimes, we bite off more than we can chew. When this happens, it isn’t Imposter Syndrome, it’s called ‘reality’, and we need to recognise the difference, be honest with ourselves and admit when we are in ‘way over our heads’.

So, with that said, the key to spotting Imposter Syndrome is to:

a) Know yourself. Separate the facts from fiction. Look at your past successes and what you have achieved and done well at, and compare it to what you are doing now.

b) Comparison is the thief of joy. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Forget how they seem to be coping. Focus on what you are good at and what you need to work on more and improve.

c) Find people you can honestly talk to that you trust and know will give you good, honest advice and feedback. Find a good mentor or coach.

6. The Narrative Fallacy

The Narrative Fallacy bias refers to our propensity to create flawed, overly simplistic stories in our mind out of a narrow sequence of cause-and-effect links to try to make sense of our crazy complicated world.

This leads us to think we understand it better than we really do.

But the truth is that we are bombarded with such a colossal amount of information from the day we are born that it’s impossible to filter, analyse and make sense of even a tiny minuscule fraction of it.

Consequently, we subconsciously cherry-pick the most accessible and readily processable information at hand and create the best story from it that we can.

How to spot it 🔍

There are more than a few potential problems when challenging the Narrative Fallacy.

One of the biggest is when important, life-changing information comes our way that doesn’t fit into our existing ‘narrative model’, so we instantly reject it – without the proper due consideration it deserves.

As with all of these ‘biases’, the best way to identify them is by being aware of their existence and keeping an open mind when presented with new (reliable) information that doesn’t fit neatly in with our own paradigm. Always remember there are unknown unknowns out there that can change how you see the world!

It’s not an easy task but crucial, especially in these bonkers times we live in, to occasionally take the ‘red pill’, so to speak, and see where the rabbit hole takes you, Neo!

7. Self Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is our hard-wired inclination to ignore detrimental information and instead seek out personally beneficial information and then use it to advance our own self-interest.

Simply put, we unconsciously find things that benefit us and then apply them in an, often obviously, self-serving fashion that people aware of our actions and outcome will most likely consider unprincipled and dodgy or just plain wrong!

The self-serving bias also helps explain why so many people like to take the credit when things go well but are quick to blame others when things go pear-shaped.

How to spot it 🔍

The Self Serving bias is something we find easy to spot in others.

After all, you often just have to follow the money trail.

I mean, just look at some of those wealthy politicians who have managed to make such huge fortunes despite their modest public servant incomes!

The trouble is that it’s difficult to spot it in ourselves.

As with pretty much all the other above biases I’ve mentioned, the golden rule to spotting it lies with knowing about it and being able to self-reflect honestly and truthfully with yourself. That, and having good people around you who will tell you the plain truth when you seem to be ‘unconsciously’ acting in a self-serving, pocket-lining fashion.

What do you think about these confirmation biases? Are you overly susceptible to them, or perhaps very good at spotting the behaviour in others?

Is there one you think is super important that I should have added? Or one that you maybe fall victim to from time to time but didn’t know it had a name? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your feedback. (I promise I’m not biased!)

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