You’re Wrong & Don’t Know It: Cognitive Biases

Chris Russo

Chris Russo

Content Marketing Manager

April 11, 2022

Professionally and personally, most if not all of us like to think that we can make logical, rational, unbiased decisions. 

And most, if not all of us, would be wrong. That is, assuming you’re human. Because if that’s the case, then I hate to break it to you, but your brain is systematically biased, and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

Or is there? 

Two Systems of Thinking

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist, professor at Princeton University, and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics who earned himself worldwide recognition following the release of his book – Thinking, Fast and Slow

In it, he popularized the idea that two Systems essentially control the brain and how we think. 

System 1 is fast, intuitive and emotional, while System 2 is slower, more deliberate and logical. Each one has its time and place in human evolution, ensuring our survival as a species. System 1 allows us to react quickly to immediate environmental threats, like predators or weather changes. System 2, on the other hand, allows humans to solve complex problems with more care and consideration, like how to migrate through the seasons, and which crops to plant.. 

This, however, leaves one question unanswered: How can we solve a complex problem quickly and while under pressure?

Heuristics: The Good, the Bad, and the Bias

The human brain is mighty, but not without limitations. Bombarded with innumerable stimuli every day, our brains have developed intuitive systems and rely on mental shortcuts to quickly come to sound conclusions. One such is called heuristics, which is an approach to problem-solving that seeks a sufficient solution to reach an immediate goal, rather than an optimal one. 

This, in theory, is a great thing, especially when you think of all the times you’ve had to make decisions quickly. But here’s where we start to get into problems. 

Heuristics are very personal, based on an individual’s unique lens of perception and experience. And using that as our guide, it’s easy to see where a deviation might begin to occur, where experience, perception, economic, social, geographic, ethnic and many other factors could start to cloud the lens through which “impartial” information is viewed. 

At a glance, this doesn’t appear like too much of a problem. After all, I have yet to discuss System 2 in detail, our logical system of making decisions. However, as Kahneman points out, we face another uniquely human problem here.

We’re Lazy, Great – But There’s Hope

“A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” ― Daniel Kahneman

Considering the above, humans are prone to take the path of least resistance. As such, if reliance on System 1 provides satisfactory outcomes, all without the extended effort or cognitive burden of System 2, then System 1 will be favoured. 

The problem is that System 1 relies on heuristics, and heuristics rely on personal perceptions, experiences, beliefs, and a bunch of other factors to make quick decisions. And it’s here that we start to see a deviation into bias because cognitive biases are just that, the gaps between what we share, and when reliant on System 1, it’s impossible for them not to permeate our decision making

So what can we do about it, especially knowing that these cognitive biases are inseparable from what makes us human?  

While impossible to dispel completely, bias can be mitigated and its negative impact reduced but only when these cognitive limitations can be identified.

From public to private sector, across every vertical and industry, and in just about any role you could possibly imagine, the need to make logical, rational, and unbiased decisions is critical. However, given that depending on where you consult, there are around 280+ cognitive biases currently catalogued and counting, trying to even get a grip on what these hidden influencers are in order to mitigate them might be difficult.

So I tried to make it easy. 

Where to Begin

To mitigate the impact of cognitive biases, you first need to learn about them, and the first thing to understand is that cognitive bias is a broad term, and not all cognitive biases are created equal. 

Realizing that even a shallow dive into the world of cognitive biases would be pretty expansive, I’ve decided to break the information down into 3 Parts:

  • Part 1: Selection Biases result from choosing non-random individuals, groups or data sets for analysis that cause an inaccurate representation of the population intended to be analyzed. Some of these include the Anchoring Effect, Confirmation Bias, Salience, etc. 
  • Part 2: Process Biases refer to the tendency of processing information based on cognitive factors instead of concrete evidence, which can skew the perception of reality, even if all the pertinent and necessary data is present. Some examples of these include Framing, Hyperbolic Discounting, and Irrational Escalation. 
  • Part 3: Social Biases occur as a result of interactions with other people and how it impacts and alters our processing and analysis of information. These include Attribution Error, False Consensus, Stereotyping and more. 

While removing our ability to form biases would undoubtedly do more harm than good, being ignorant of their existence is doing immeasurably worse damage as we continue to define and create the world around us at a rapid pace. 

As a world that needs so desperately to come together, recognizing and addressing our own shortcomings is the perfect place to start.  

So whether you’re looking to create a better product for a broader audience or want to try and be a better person for a better world, I look forward to taking you on this journey through Cognitive Biases and how they impact our lives. 

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Join the Thoughtworks newsletter list to receive curated content that exemplifies our Product thinking approach.

Related Posts