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The 5 cognitive biases that you need to know about

Cognitive biases are evolution’s productivity hacks. They help our brain to process events, people, and circumstances faster, and to make sense of our surroundings and cause-and-effect relationships, oftentimes without us even being aware of what is happening. Despite the good intentions (thanks again, evolution), cognitive biases can lead us to make the wrong decisions or to draw the wrong conclusions.


I am fascinated by neuroscience and so I love geeking out on understanding how our brain works and what is going on inside. Here are the 5 cognitive biases that I find the most useful to understand and to be aware of:


1. Confirmation bias

This is when your brain is seeking information that confirms that you are right. Whether it is a conversation you are having with others, the news you are reading, the media you are consuming, your brain is looking for and taking notes of anything that is in line with your views. The key thing here that this is happening unconsciously, which is what makes it difficult to catch. You might be right in your views, but the issue is that you are missing out on other, likely useful information and perspectives when you are forming your opinion. Without seeing the whole picture, it is hard to come to the right conclusions or to be able to understand different viewpoints.


If you have seen the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’, you understand the implications of this cognitive bias. With everyone experiencing their own version of reality, the world becomes a place where we all live in our own echo chambers. Whatever your reality has been so far, you will continue to see the world through that lens: you may believe that all bosses are jerks, relationships are transactional, only bullies can get ahead, and so on.


>> Pro Tip: ask yourself when making decisions: ‘Are there any other perspectives I haven’t explored yet? What am I not willing to see here?’



2. Negativity bias

When we give more importance to negative things than to positive ones, negativity bias is doing its thing. It is not the same as being negative or pessimistic, as those mindsets are about the likelihood we give to certain events and outcomes. When we deem the negative more important than the positive, we take negative feedback more seriously than the positive. When judging someone’s character, we take their negative behavior more into account than their good one. When it comes to loss or gain, we care more about possibly losing something than winning (e.g. this is why you feel more incentivized to exercise knowing that you will lose $100 if you don’t, rather than by gaining $100 if you do).


The negativity bias can significantly impact your relationship with yourself and with others, as well as how you see the world around you. When you focus on the negative, no matter how awesome someone might be, you get hung up on the one thing about them that drives you crazy. Likewise, you can easily end up beating yourself up because you spend more time and energy on your ‘flaws’ or what you did wrong than all the things that you could be grateful for. As for your environment, you can thank negativity bias for watching the news and feeling like the world is crap and human-kind is doomed.


>> Pro tip: when assessing a situation or drawing a conclusion, ask yourself: ‘Have I weighed the negatives and the positives equally?’


3. Actor-Observer bias

Ok, let’s get real: we are ALL guilty of this one, whether or not we admit it. You see this bias in action when you blame the circumstances for your mistakes, but blame other people when they make the same mistakes. In other words: when I screw up it is because someone didn’t do their bit, my boss is an idiot, the world is against me… but when others screw up, it is because they are idiots. Ouch :)


The key thing here is that we explain our mistakes with external factors we cannot control, but we explain others’ mistakes with internal factors they should be able to control. What is happening is that our mind is trying to protect our view of ourselves, our ego. Our ego can be fragile, and for those people who are particularly sensitive to any criticism, whether that comes from others or from themselves, protecting their ego can lead to overusing the actor-observer bias.


>> Pro tip: when judging others for their mistakes, ask yourself: ‘What other reasons could there be why they have made the mistake in the first place? Would I judge myself the same way?’


4. Survivorship bias

Oh, how much we love this one! Or, to be precise, we love the success stories that prove that anyone, including ourselves, can make it too. What we fail to recognize is that a successful founder / startup / business idea / fill-in-the-blank is the exception, not the rule. Falling for the survivorship bias means that we believe in real-life fairy tales and that they can happen to us too. It is not necessarily a bad thing, to be honest, because these success stories give us hope and motivation to push ourselves and create something remarkable.


The problem is when we make a leap without doing our research on all the entrepreneurs / startups / business ideas that didn’t make it and learn why they failed. In fact, most entrepreneurs don’t know that 90% of startups don’t make it beyond year 2. It is not that uplifting to be aware of this fact, neither it is to know that most college dropouts don’t make it as successful entrepreneurs. Likewise, most books don’t get published and most young people don’t become social media influencers making millions. While it is good to be optimistic and hopeful, there is more to success than what we see on the surface. Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ is a great source of insights on that.


>> Pro tip: when using a success story (of an individual or a company) as your role model, ask yourself: ‘How did they succeed? What factors contributed to their success and how? How much could luck have been a part of it?’


5. The Dunning-Kruger effect

Even though this isn’t technically called a bias, the brain mechanism that is happening in the background is the same. At its core, this bias means that the more you are an expert at something, the more you realize you don’t know. On the other hand, the less you know, the more you overestimate your expertise and capability in the subject.


So, if you are an amateur or have little knowledge of something, you most likely overestimate how good you are or how much of an expert you are. Call me biased, but I see men being guilty of this a lot more often than women. In fact, women tend to be guilty of the opposite. The more we know about something, the more we realize we don’t know and this is often when the impostor syndrome kicks in. The most well-known experiment is the HBR research from 2014 which found men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. Sigh…


>> Pro tip: when evaluating your authority and credibility in a certain field, ask yourself: ‘What evidence do I have that I am an expert here? How can I look at my expertise more objectively?’


The most obvious question is this: ‘Ok, how do we get rid of these cognitive biases?’. Sorry if I disappoint, but there is no simple answer as we are hard-wired to operate this way. That said, being more self-aware is the first step. Whenever you make an important decision or draw a key insight, pause for a minute, and ask yourself the questions I shared above. These should help, unless, of course, you believe that you aren’t influenced by these biases - in which case, read again the Actor-observer bias. ;)


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