Our brain and bias

By Sally Evans

If you have a brain, you have bias! We tend to think of having a bias as a bad thing, but it isn't always.

Bias is a natural consequence of the way our brains work. Biases help us categorise things so that we can quickly determine what's safe and what isn't.

Biases help us make decisions more easily so that we don't have to tap into our cognitive energy store every time we decide something. A bias toward eating more vegetables and less dessert is a healthy bias, for example.

While we may like to believe that we are rational and logical, the fact is that we are continually under the influence of cognitive biases. These biases distort our thinking, influence our beliefs, and sway the decisions and judgments that we make each and every day.

As researcher Jennifer Eberhardt explains in her book, ‘Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do’, "at its root, bias is not an affliction that can be cured or banished. It's a human condition that we have to understand and deal with."

Sometimes these biases are fairly obvious, but sometimes they are so subtle that they are almost impossible to notice.

Why do these biases happen?

Attention is a limited resource. We can't possibly appraise every possible detail and event ​when forming thoughts and opinions. So we often rely on mental shortcuts that speed up our ability to make judgments, but sometimes lead to bias.

Here are just a few of the different cognitive biases that have a powerful influence on how we think, feel, and behave.

1.  Anchoring bias

The tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information when making a decision and to use it as an ‘ anchor’. For example, a doctor’s first impressions of the patient may create an anchoring point that can sometimes incorrectly influence all subsequent diagnostic assessments.

2. Availability bias

The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events is influenced by how recent our memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be. Memories can be heavily influenced by things that happened after the actual event itself.

For example, a witness to a car accident or crime might believe that their recollection is clear, but researchers have found that memory is surprisingly susceptible to even very subtle influences.

Research has shown that simply asking questions about an event can change someone's memories of what happened. Hearing other people talk about a memory from their perspective may also change your memory of what transpired.

3. Confirmation bias

The tendency to search for, focus on, interpret or remember information in a way that just serves to confirm our preconceptions.

Examples include only paying attention to information that confirms our beliefs about issues such as immigration control or global warming. Do you:

-         Only following people on social media who share your viewpoints?

-         Choose news sources that present stories that support your views?

-         Refuse to listen to the opposing side?

-         Not consider all of the facts logically and rationally?

There are a few reasons why this happens.

One is that only seeking to confirm existing opinions helps limit the mental resources we need to use to make decisions. It also protects our self-esteem by helping us feel that our beliefs are accurate.

4. Optimism bias

The tendency to be overoptimistic, at times overestimating potentially pleasing or positive outcomes.

Do you:

-         Believe you can smoke without an increased chance of getting lung cancer?

-         Buy lottery tickets because you believe you have a better chance of winning than others?

5. Planning fallacy bias

The tendency to overestimate benefits and reduce costs and task completion times. The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that affects our critical thinking and decision-making abilities. Like other biases, it has detrimental effects and can negatively impact our lives.

Sometimes known as ‘wishful thinking’ here are some examples:

- a Business may spend a considerable amount of time overestimating its capacity and underestimating project deadlines?

- While driving somewhere, do you often underestimate the amount of time it will take to reach the destination, which is why you are often late?

6. Loss aversion bias

Did you know that the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something?

For example, the loss felt from money, or any other valuable object can feel worse than gaining that same thing.  Loss aversion refers to our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains, so simply put, it’s better not to lose £20 than to find £20.

A final thought.

The cognitive biases above are common, but this is only a sample of the many biases that can affect our thinking. These biases collectively influence much of our thoughts and ultimately, decision making.

Many of these biases are inevitable. We simply don't have the time to evaluate every thought in every decision for the presence of any bias. Understanding these biases is very helpful in learning how they can lead us to poor decisions in work and life.

What bias are you often subject to?


Sally is Founder of LifeBuddy, an Organisational Psychologist and Certified Principal Business Psychologist