Another way in which we must watch our thinking is in relation to cognitive biases. In short, they are additional ways in which the brain instinctively seeks shortcuts and the path of least resistance, which then result in faulty thinking that distorts or misinterprets the truth and could subsequently lead to bad decisions.
A cognitive bias is a pattern of thought that favors one’s own experience, beliefs, and subjectivity over reason and objectivity. We all have our own perceptions and opinions about the world and how it works. These beliefs come from our own experience, and we use them to make predictions and judgments about what happens.
The problem with cognitive biases is that they only reflect a single, solitary person’s experience: yours. (Or mine.) Your memory of a certain event is colored by your own beliefs about it. And let’s face it—that viewpoint is probably biased. Every time a relationship breaks up, each person has their own perception of what went wrong and tends to retell the story of the breakup in ways that make themselves look better and alleviate their fault in the matter. Now imagine this tendency as applied to each and every situation that has open-ended interpretations.
Other times, cognitive biases are a byproduct of downright incorrect thinking and interpretations of the world that, once again, are caused by the brain’s proclivity for certainty and System 1 thinking. If we aren’t aware that we are operating from a sorely limited worldview and perspective, then we are doomed.
Biases can also come from the two ways in which we organize the limited information we have about the world: schemas and heuristics. They serve to put what we know about the world into action and facilitate quick decision-making. Each of them goes a long way in producing our psychological triggers.
Schemas. A schema is a model by which we arrange and decipher the information we’re currently receiving. It allows us to say, “Okay, based on these three factors I can observe, I know what this is and how to act.” Imagine a schema as a snapshot of a certain situation, and we use that snapshot to arrange unfamiliar information.
Introduced by psychologist Jean Piaget, schemas are contextual, and we have schemas for different types of situations. Schemas develop throughout our entire lives, though they’re most prevalent when we’re learning about something for the first time. But while schemas are extremely useful, they can steer us toward unwarranted biases or errors.
Heuristics. Where schemas help (and hurt) us in learning and interpreting certain things, heuristics are more about how quickly we solve problems and make decisions. A heuristic is a shortcut our minds take when choosing a certain course of action, and as with a schema, it can be helpful or harmful. How do they differ? Where schemas are about understanding a situation at large, heuristics are about your role in a situation and how to act within it. “If this is the situation,” a heuristic says, “then I should act in this way.”
We make hundreds of decisions every day. Most of them are small, ultimately trivial ones: what we’ll have for lunch, what radio station we’ll listen to on the way home, what grocery store we’re going to shop at, and so forth, unlike major life decisions that could have long-term consequences. We simply can’t evaluate every last detail or possible ramification of small decisions. It would be a waste of valuable time and mental energy.
That’s where heuristics come in. They’re mental guidelines based on past experiences that we use to make basic daily decisions. Think of heuristics as flashcards: they give us quick, abbreviated information to help us make speedy choices about daily decisions that we can’t stop and deliberate over.
Like the prior section discusses, our brains are crazy about System 1 thinking and using schemas and heuristics: they take less effort, energy, and time, and make everything simple. Cognitive biases enforce that preference because they encourage snap judgments and quick decisions. As convenient as they are, they blind us to the complex realties that dwell underneath almost everything under the sun.
Cognitive biases do have their uses, however. Sometimes you have to clear the decks of your brain’s queue, and to do that, certain positive applications of cognitive bias can be good things. But even in those situations, you need to be aware enough to keep your bias from becoming too strong. Having acknowledged this, there are four particular life scenarios where cognitive bias can actually be beneficial:
First. When there’s too much information to absorb. We live in a time when there’s a deluge of facts, data, statistics, stories, accounts—basically too much information. The overload can be exhausting, and usually contains at least some bits of info that are of no use to us whatsoever. We can become overwhelmed and paralyzed. So it becomes necessary to filter out the information that’s relevant and retain only the parts we can use.
Cognitive bias can help reinforce that filter, and it does so in several ways. The brain tends to latch on to the most repeated or recently activated memories (something called the availability heuristic, which we’ll explain more in a bit). It also tends to remember events or people that are strange or humorous, and notices more strongly when something has changed. So especially when you’re in a situation where you experience a lot of repetition—like a day-to-day “grind” job—your brain tends to relate more to what it already knows, as well as when something is odd or different about it.
Of course, when we’re experiencing a flood of information, we could fall prey to confirmation bias and deliberately exclude anything that doesn’t support our most highly cherished beliefs. And that could mean we’re missing out on something extremely important.
Second. When we’re struggling to find “meaning” in certain things. We need context for the confusing and varied events that happen in our lives and the things we observe in the world. If we can’t derive any meaning or significance from them, we feel adrift and lost. This puts us in an immediate state of vulnerability. To avoid that, we take whatever information we’ve already filtered and try to find patterns and connections.
Cognitive bias has already reduced the amount of information we have. Now the brain tries to find a certain story in that limited data. In doing so, it relies on our personal experience, looking for past events to compare with this new happening so that it makes some kind of sense to us.
The risk in this, however, is that the brain may rely on outdated stereotypes we have set up or sweeping generalities and judgments we already believe. Also, the brain tends to favor people or things we’re comfortable or familiar with—it considers them “better” than people or things we don’t like or don’t know much about. The brain considers that information too.
In this situation, the cognitive bias won’t give a full picture, of course. It’s all based on our very limited past experience. But for a moment or two, it’s enough for our brains to develop some meaning from the situation.
Third. When we need to act quickly. Time puts us into a crunch. Decisions need to be made in fast order. If we let ourselves get bogged down by inactivity or don’t react swiftly enough, we can fall behind or risk our survival. Cognitive biases can be helpful in that regard—although, again, not without potential hazards.
Our egos have a role in this action. We have to feel that we’re capable of making a positive and important impact. So the cognitive bias may fill us with a sense of confidence (or, more likely, overconfidence) to get the motor running. In doing this, we may jump to conclusions. But we’ll get stuff done and things will be in motion. Sometimes this is indeed the most important factor.
Cognitive biases cause us to fall back on the things that are most familiar and comfortable to us. We rely on the most immediate and available resources. We focus on the present situation, preferring to ponder that instead of the past or the future. We concentrate on things we can more easily relate to and eschew tools or assets that don’t make as much sense to us. We strongly prefer solutions that look simple, thorough, and relatively risk-free, rather than answers that are overly complicated, vague, or unsafe.
When the clock’s running low, this may be a perfectly reasonable course of action. And it’s almost entirely fueled by cognitive bias. But since it comes fast and furious, there might be some cleanup required once everything’s settled down.
Fourth. When we’re deciding what we need to remember for the future. The final scenario in which cognitive bias might be of assistance concerns memory. If only fragments of our constant information overload are useful to us now, then even less of it will be relevant to us in the days and years to come. So again, we have to cherry-pick the things and details that we remember. Our cognitive bias steps in to shape these memories.
This process basically involves reduction. We’ll discard some of the finer specifics of things and events and form broader, more general memories. We trim some of the multiple smaller events off and reshape them into a few basic key points. Maybe we’ll pick out only a couple events and elevate them so they represent the whole experience.
In processing these new memories, our cognitive bias again defers to those that are most meaningful or familiar to the brain. It will also “edit” certain memories so they become more accessible to us, but in this process, certain details might accidentally be removed or inserted—so we remember the event slightly differently than how it really happened. And our memory of the experience is more affected by outside circumstances (our condition while the memory was happening, how the information’s being presented, and so forth) than by how crucial the information might be.
There are times when cognitive bias can help you, but biases are decidedly not the path to practical intelligence. In fact, they veritably put a blindfold on you. Thus, we must delve into a few of the most prominent biases to understand how to battle them when we can.