Cognitive Biases

8 January 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.

Share

Perhaps the most valuable asset we have is Time.  Its value is set by the fact that we have a finite supply of it.  Equally influential is the reality that there are multiple competing demands for it.  These factors contend with one another, the outcome often being that aching feeling that we just don’t have enough of it.  Whether it is enough time for sleep, fun, socialization, reading, work, we generally wish we had more of it.

 

The finite nature of time is determined by the cosmological realities that there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year.  Our biological limiters include fatigue, the related need for sleep, and the ultimate reality of our impending mortality.  The contentious demands that vie for this precious asset include the all too real certainty that most of us have to work in order to survive.  Also heavy, are the demands that I refer to as life maintenance tasks: you know, like shopping for food, cooking it, washing the dishes, cleaning and maintaining the home, washing the clothes, paying the bills, etc. etc.  These demands, coupled with raising children put a tight and limiting strangle-hold on the typical parent’s time.

 

It is unnecessary to devote too much time to this discussion as the scenario is all too familiar to most of us.  It is the implication of this reality that deserves precious thought and consideration.  It is important because we can’t and won’t get a refund.  We can’t get time back!  The choices we make each day pertaining to how we spend our time deserve much more thought than we give them.  The time we are very, very fortunate to have, deserves the respect of forethought and proactive contemplation; otherwise, we are likely to squander it.

 

How is time squandered?  This, I suppose, is a matter of perspective.  One’s perspective is shaped by the choices made in living out one’s life. How are your priorities set?  Do you prioritize work [making a living] over, for example, time with family?  And do you prioritize life maintenance tasks over exercise?   There is a transient hierarchical list of priorities we all set, and the reality is that those values further down on the list are sacrificed to accomplish the higher order priorities, regardless of the true value of each priority.  The question that begs to be asked is “To what degree are you an active participant in setting your priorities?”  Too often I imagine, the urgent pressing “demands du jour’ take precedence over even highly valued ones.

 

It is not only profoundly important to take an active roll in establishing one’s own priorities, it is equally important to respect the time of other individuals.  This necessitates striking a careful balance, but, that respect is manifested by being punctual, following through on commitments (keeping one’s appointments), and considering the person’s own priorities and demands when tasking that individual.  Tardiness and failure to keep commitments is, in effect, valuing one’s own time over the value of those who have agreed to devote their limited and precious time to you.  With this in mind, it is fair to conclude that failure to keep such commitments is egregiously disrespectful, even selfish.  You are essentially saying, when you are late, that your time is more important than the person’s time with whom you have made a commitment.  The truth in this notion is demonstrated by the anger and downright resentment you likely feel when your time is squandered by another.  Time is a two way street.

 

So, how do we give Time its due respect, be it yours or another’s?  First, you have to look closely at your priorities; and task your life with the ever present notion that you will NOT get a refund.  The time you have is a limited and precious commodity with many competing demands.  You have the choice: in fact, a powerful cognitive capacity, to prioritize or reprioritize your time.  Ask yourself, “When this hour, when this day, weekend, or week, is up, will I have spent my time well?”  Ask yourself this, knowing that when it is up, you can’t get it back.  Will you have the feeling that the expenditure of this precious asset was really worth it.  Or was it squandered?  Keep in mind that you never really know when your time will be up – in fact it is unwise to assume that you still have a full lifetime to live.  Each day is precious and it brings you another day closer to your ultimate demise.

 

In your dealings with others, apply the golden rule.  Show respect for the limited time other’s have and demand respect from them for your’s.  However, if you do not proactively prioritize your time, DO NOT assume that others are likewise (for the lack of a better word) negligent.

 

It IS important to devote time to important tasks.  Work, life maintenance tasks, these are important – actually very important.  So too are, exercise, fun, relaxation, reading, learning, adventure, companionship, travel, and novelty.  The urgency of the former is a tyrannical should that minimizes and often overshadows the importance of the latter.  Give the latter their due respect and proactively prioritize them, OR they will fall victim to the deceptively “more pressing demands.”  Give priority to, or at least make a commitment to devoting a good portion of your time to those tasks that will build and expand your mind and strengthen your body.  Challenge yourself through adventure to be more.  Expect more from life than to be a worker drone tasking away until death comes.  Dare not to look back with regret at the lost and irretrievable time that you squandered.

Share