Cognitive Biases

Jan 8, 2010

Did you know that you are likely to accept as true those pieces of information that make immediate sense to you? On a similar vein, did you know that you are more likely to take in information that supports your beliefs and to reject or ignore information that runs counter to your beliefs?  Lastly, did you know that you are likely to use entirely different criteria to evaluate someone else’s behavior than you use to evaluate your own?

 

These three tendencies are pervasive cognitive biases.  They are so universal that it seems that they are hard wired into our brains.  I want to spend some time exploring these biases because they commonly lead to mistakes or at least the maintenance and/or promulgation of misinformation.  Over the next several weeks I will delve into these biases, one at a time, and hopefully help you avoid the erroneous trappings of your own neurology.

 

The first bias is known as Spinoza’s Conjecture.  The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza’s wrote that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  Sam Harris, a noted neuroscientist, has written that most people have difficulty tolerating vagueness.  On the other hand he has stated that “belief comes quickly and naturally.”  The end result is that “skepticism is slow and unnatural.

 

The second bias known as Confirmation Bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs (Skeptic’s Dictionary).  In other words we hear what we want to hear.

 

The third bias is Fundamental Attribution Error.  This bias refers to our tendency to over estimate the influence of the internal or personal attributes of an individual and underestimate the external or situational factors when explaining the behaviors of others.  This is particularly true when we don’t know the other person very well.  So other people mess up because they are stupid or lazy.  We make mistakes because we are tired, stressed, or have been short changed in some way.

 

As we will explore later, there are personal, organizational, and societal costs associated with each of these biases.  This is particularly true if we are unaware of these tendencies.  I’ll discuss this more next time.

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