It is estimated we make around 35,000 decisions every single day.  That is a lot of choices we have to make and if we stop and think it's impressive we manage to achieve all this with everything else going on. To allow us to manage this without overloading ourself, our brains have some clever shortcuts known as cognitive heuristics, otherwise known as cognitive bias.

These shortcuts allow us to make decisions quickly but this quick thinking comes at a cost.  Keep reading to understand what is meant by cognitive bias and three common bias that can cause us to make irrational decisions.

What is Cognitive Bias?

A cognitive bias is described as systematic error that happens in our brain. Cognitive bias can be caused by limits of the minds attention, social pressures and emotions to name a few.  Calling it an error perhaps is a bit tough, after all these heuristics are shortcuts for our brain to react quickly to get us out of danger and help us survive as humans.  

Consider our caveman 'selfs' - we are on our way to hunt for food under the cloak of darkness when from the shadows we feel a presence creeping up behind us with deep breathing. As we turn around we notice piercing eyes through the darkness. As quick as you can say lion, we leg it.  If we stopped to process all the information around us there is a good chance we would quickly suffer an impending doom.

Cognitive bias allows our caveman self to react quickly based on information they have learned from our environments and experiences. The decision may be rational or irrational but the quick thinking has allowed us to escape from danger.

The 21st century creates new challenges, thankfully escaping predators (or perceived predators) is not one of them. We require more thoughtful and rational decisions to be made in our work and daily lives. Instead of predators our brains are now bombarded every day with a vast range of data from multiple mediums, far more than we can actually cope with.  Processing all the data available to us would consume as and result in taking too long to make even a simple choice.  

Our cognitive bias allows us to come to decisions with a degree of success and speed. The trade off for this speed can create errors in our thinking that can affect the accuracy of our decisions being made.  This can cause problems in our working life and can have devastating effects from simple errors, to financial crisis and poor motivation amongst teams and individuals.

The diagram below sums up the number of cognitive bias identified in recent years.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cognitive_bias_codex_en.svg

As the above diagram shows there are hundreds of heuristics but below are 3 common heuristics we may experience when making choices when we have too much information and prevent us from making rational decisions.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is when we tend to focus on data and information that reinforces our current beliefs or values.  At the same time we reject or devalue any facts that don't back up our opinions.  

It turns out that as humans we find it hard to accept our opinions may be wrong and is difficult for us to seek out new information that may be of greater importance to our decision making process. This can cause us both in our work roles and  personal lives to overlook information that could make more rational decisions.

Availability Bias

Availability bias is defined that we make decisions based on what we can remember. This shortcut helps us determine the probability of something happening and therefore if we are asked to make a decision based on memory, our thoughts can be skewed due to limitations of our memory.

If something has a vivid narrative then it will be easier to recall. Similarly, if a big event has happened and it has been reinforced by other opinions then it will be easily recalled.  

This becomes an issue because we aren't always given the luxury of time to think about a decision therefore this shortcut helps us come to a conclusion. Unfortunately these conclusions are largely based on the theory that if we can remember it easily, then it must be important.

This can result in us placing too much value on things we can remember and underestimate the things we can't recall or hear about.

Anchoring

We often look for a focal point as a reference to base our decisions on.  Once we have found this focus point we use this as the starting point and anchor to that piece of information.  The problem with focusing on this initial data is that we struggle to look beyond it and use it as a comparison to base our decision even if it is the least relevant in the current scenario.  This bias can be used to influence others,  setting their expectation by preloading them with the information to base their decisions on.  

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have - Emile Chartier

Once the anchor is set it can be difficult to be persuaded away from it unless the anchor can be reset.  This can prevent us from making rational decisions.

Overcoming Bias

If cognitive bias can cause you to come to a decision based on fundamentally flawed information and irrational thinking, is there anything that we can do to help us.  Critical thinking skills and working through a model such as the ladder of inference can help, however I have created a list of useful tips you can start using today to improve your decision making.

  • Acknowledge that like all of us you have cognitive bias.
  • Understand that they are useful to help process the amount of information we are subjected too.
  • Understand that your reasoning process may have gaps or errors that you do not see.
  • Realise you cannot get rid of them.
  • Actively seek out information from multiple sources to challenge your biased opinions.
  • Take time to think about a decision - ask for more time if you need to gather the facts.
  • Question if your first decision is based on bias or facts available to you.
  • Spend time doing research and seek out other peoples opinions without judgement may different to what your bias is telling you.

Wrapping it all up

This is just a quick introduction to cognitive bias but sometimes just being made aware of something is enough to make us stop and think about something. I hope the article has brought to your attention some heuristics that your brain might be tricking you into making a decision and the tips provided can help you straight away.  

Cognitive bias allows us to make decisions quickly and has adapted well to change from the survival instincts we required them for to the 21st Century.  We don't want to eradicate these shortcuts but sometimes we just want to check that we have all  the information available before we settle on a final decision.

Regardless of what you do for a career,  knowing about these biases can perhaps allow you to make better choices.  Take your time, think about your decisions because you don't know how far the butterfly effect will ripple.