Cognitive Errors and Biases in Everyday Life


by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about identifying and overcoming cognitive errors and biases which effect our daily thinking and problem solving so that we can make better choices and avoid making mistakes.

It is difficult to find fault with yourself or your thinking or objectively know your biases and logical errors. We presume that our opinions are based upon our experience and observation, and we are justified in holding them or expressing them. We also presume that our memories are infallible and we still remember the past, although in reality we keep rewriting and reconstructing them according to our current experience, knowledge and observation. In other words, neither our thinking nor memory is perfect and we have to cope with these problems in our day-to-day life.

Cognitive errors or errors in thinking and perception

These problems arise because we are vulnerable to cognitive errors or errors in thinking and perception. Although we are supposed to be rational and reasonable, we are prone to make mistakes habitually and subconsciously in our thinking and judgment and do not even notice it. These errors do not rarely happen but regularly during our normal and routine thinking. It is a systemic problem which happens recurrently in our daily lives due to the mental barriers or filters that influence our thinking and perception. They arise in the normal course of our growth and development during our interaction with the world and people.

The cognitive and perceptual errors prevent us from seeing things as they are, or thinking and knowing them with required clarity and objectivity. Examples of common cognitive errors, to which people are generally prone, include over generalization, all or nothing thinking, over simplification, jumping to conclusions, should and must thinking, stereotyping, exaggerating, catastrophizing or minimizing, taking things personally, polarized thinking or thinking in terms of “either/or” categories, and so on.

Cognitive errors lead to prejudice and irrational thinking, which prevent us from knowing ourselves and others and rationally weighing problems and situations. For example, one of the common cognitive biases to which we are prone is to think that our success is due to intrinsic factors, and our failures are due extrinsic factors. Another example is our tendency to agree with others more when we are in a group, so that we can fit into the group and adjust our thinking and behavior according to the group norms. Cognitive errors may also arise due to surface impressions, impulsive thinking, emotional involvement or strong likes and dislikes.

Cognitive errors and biases can prove costly as people make mistakes in making right choices or finding right solutions, which can affect their personal and professional lives. Because of them people may choose wrong careers, wrong life-partners or business partners, wrong investments, wrong friends and incompatible relationships. They may overlook important matters or fail to discern the risks or dangers that lurk in their environment, which may prevent them from foreseeing the consequences of their actions and decisions, or improve their thinking and behavior.

Overcoming cognitive errors

How can you avoid cognitive errors or improve your thinking and discernment? It is almost impossible to free the mind completely from the errors and mental shortcuts, to which it is prone. However, with effort you can improve your thinking and overcome some cognitive distortions. Firstly, you should not take for granted your thinking, knowledge or perceptions and remain vigilant and open-minded when you make decisions or draw conclusions, focusing on the process and perfecting it. It is also helpful if you frequently remember that like anyone else you are systemically and chronically prone to biases, assumptions and thinking errors.

Thirdly, you must constantly challenge you thinking, judgment and perceptions by verifying facts, asking questions, seeking clarifications and looking for evidence and validation. Fourthly, problems such as generalizations and jumping to conclusions can be avoided or minimized by asking questions, listening to critical and contrary opinions, and considering as many viewpoints as possible.

Truth is not always self-evident. There can more than two opinions, possibilities and alternatives in any given situation or on any problem or issue. Therefore, one should remain grounded in the reality of the situation and avoid polarized (either/or) thinking, knowing that there can be grey areas, ambiguity and a range of possibilities in the complexity and diversity of life. Lastly, truths are relative. One cannot ignore the context or the situation in which they manifest. Hence, one should always keep the context in mind and avoid rigid thinking.

Spiritual solutions

Spiritual solutions to resolve cognitive errors are available. Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism understand the problems that arise due to lack of clarity in thinking, perception and discretion. They particularly emphasize the importance of cultivating discernment to overcome suffering and experience peace. According to them liberation (Moksha or Nirvana) means freedom from the limitations and impurities of the desire-ridden mind. For that, they prescribe the practice of mindfulness, contemplation, detachment, dispassion, purity of the mind and body, equanimity, sameness, nonviolence, truthfulness, balance, stability, etc. Their practice leads to freedom from the disruptive factors of the mind such as desires, selfishness, egoism, and attraction and aversion to worldly things. The idea is that the mind should be kept free from its habitual and impulsive behavior and from the modification which arise from them. When the mind becomes peaceful and free from desires and attachments, it can discern truths with greater clarity, wisdom and awareness. Purity or clarity in thinking and perception leads to better appreciation of oneself and others, peace and happiness.

Cognitive biases and the art of thinking clearly

Cognitive biases and errors in our thinking are part of our daily lives. Whether we are aware of them or not, they affect our lives. However, by knowing the common biases and cognitive errors to which we are prone, we can improve our lives. Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss writer, novelist and entrepreneur wrote a comprehensive book on the subject, in which she listed 99 common cognitive biases or errors to which people were prone and how they could be avoided so that one could clearly think and make better decisions. The following is a list of a few important ones that are listed by her. Those who want to study more about this subject may please refer to her book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly.”

  1. Social proof: Also known as herd instinct, it is blindly copying other people’s thinking and behavior or accepting what society does at large as a necessary proof to engage in it without further justification.
  2. Sunk cost fallacy: This is the fallacy of sticking to a lost cause or failed business venture due to one’s inability to admit failure or write off a bad investment that has already been made.
  3. Confirmation bias: In this, one uses new evidence or information to validate or justify preexisting beliefs, opinions and conclusions, selectively using or ignoring information or facts according to convenience.
  4. Authority bias: This is to believe in authority figures and blindly follow their opinions and suggestions without questioning their merit or validity.
  5. Hindsight bias: It arises because people assume that they are better predictors of future events, ignoring the reality that humans are good at analyzing events and their implications only after they happen, not before.
  6. Outcome bias: This arises due to judging the decisions solely based upon their result, without considering the factors that led to them, or the process by which they were made.
  7. Liking bias: People tend to make decisions or judgments solely based upon the likeability of a person rather than facts and reason. In other words you tend to buy, listen, follow or agree with people you like or find agreeable.
  8. Self-serving bias: This makes people take credit for their successes and blame others for their failures (or attribute their successes to internal factors and failures to external factors).
  9. Cognitive dissonance: This is retrospectively reinterpreting or rationalizing a negative experience by holding a different reason, belief or perception to avoid or conceal the discomfort caused by it.
  10. Sleeper effect: This refers to the tendency of the mind to remember the message or propaganda (the effect), whether it is credible or not, long after the messenger or the source (the cause) of the message or propaganda was lost, forgotten, fallen asleep or dormant.
  11. Social comparison bias: This refers to the attitude of successful people who refuse to help someone who may likely do better than them, even if such a decision may make them appear foolish in the long run. This bias often leads to talented new comers becoming sidelined by their peers.
  12. Falsification of history: This refers to the tendency to subconsciously alter memories, past beliefs and opinions to fit the present ones to avoid the feeling that one is fallible, confused, flip-flopped or made mistakes.

(Note: Rolf Dobelli's book, "The Art of Thinking" may be purchased using this link. The Link will open in a new browser window or tab.)

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