What is Cognitive Bias – An Overview

At any given point of time, our brain is carrying out trillions of mental processes. And hence, our brain is constantly looking for strategies and rules of thumb that can be applied across various situations to ease the burden of executing all those mental processes. These rules are sometimes helpful especially when it comes to making decisions and judgments that are complex or we are running out of time.  In our attempt to simplify information processes, we may take mental shortcuts that lead us down the wrong path. These thinking errors that we make when we are processing information are known as cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases develop for several reasons. For example, errors in memory can affect how you think about a particular event. This, in turn, influences how you think about similar events, which can lead to cognitive bias. It’s also thought that cognitive bias helps us process information more quickly. Cognitive biases can cause us to make inaccurate judgments, decisions, and interpretations.

Because we’re constantly making judgments and processing information, we are constantly at risk for cognitive bias. At one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of some type of cognitive bias. Although it’s impossible to completely avoid cognitive biases, it is possible to understand what they are so that we can look for them when they arise and adjust our judgments as needed.

In this article we will look into various aspects of Cognitive Biases and why is Cognitive Health important?.

What is Cognition?

Cognition is a term referring to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. These cognitive processes include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception, and planning.

Types of Cognitive Processes

There are many different types of cognitive processes. These include:

  • Attention: Attention is a cognitive process that allows people to focus on a specific stimulus in the environment.
  • Language: Language and language development are cognitive processes that involve the ability to understand and express thoughts through spoken and written words. It allows us to communicate with others and plays an important role in thought.
  • Learning: Learning requires cognitive processes involved in taking in new things, synthesizing information, and integrating it with prior knowledge.
  • Memory: Memory is an important cognitive process that allows people to encode, store, and retrieve information. It is a critical component in the learning process and allows people to retain knowledge about the world and their personal histories.
  • Perception: Perception is a cognitive process that allows people to take in information through their senses (sensation) and then utilize this information to respond and interact with the world.
  • Thought: Thought is an essential part of every cognitive process. It allows people to engage in decision-making, problem-solving, and higher reasoning

Cognition and Learning

Cognitive processes affect every aspect of life, from school to work to relationships. Some specific uses for these cognitive processes include the following.

  • Learning New Things: Learning requires being able to take in new information, form new memories, and make connections with other things that you already know. Researchers and educators use their knowledge of these cognitive processes to help create instructive materials to help people learn new concepts.
  • Forming Memories: Memory is a major topic of interest in the field of cognitive psychology. How we remember, what we remember, and what we forget reveal a great deal about how the cognitive processes operate. While people often think of memory as being much like a video camera, carefully recording and cataloging life events, and storing them away for later recall, research has found that memory is much more complex.
  • Making Decisions: Whenever people make any type of decision, it involves making judgments about things they have processed. It might involve comparing new information to prior knowledge, integrating new information into existing ideas, or even replacing old knowledge with new knowledge before making a choice.

Why is Cognitive Health Important?

The cognitive processes have a wide-ranging impact that influences everything from daily life to overall health.

  • Perceiving the World: As you take in sensations from the world around you, the information that you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell must first be transformed into signals that your brain can understand. The perceptual process allows you to take in sensory information and convert it into a signal that your brain can understand and act upon.
  • Forming Impressions: The world is full of an endless amount of sensory experiences. To make meaning out of all this incoming information, it is important for your brain to be able to reduce your experience of the world down to the fundamentals. You remember everything, so events are reduced down to the critical concepts and ideas that you need.
  • Filling in the Gaps: In addition to reducing information to make it more memorable and understandable, people also elaborate on these memories as they reconstruct them. In some cases, this elaboration happens when people are struggling to remember something. When the information cannot be recalled, the brain sometimes fills in the missing data with whatever seems to fit.
  • Interacting With the World: Cognition involves not only the things that go on inside our heads but also how these thoughts and mental processes influence our actions. Our attention to the world around us, memories of past events, understanding of language, judgments about how the world works, and abilities to solve problems all contribute to how we behave and interact with our surrounding environment.

Tips for Improving Your Cognition

Cognitive processes are influenced by a range of factors including genetics and experiences. While you cannot change your genetics, there are things that you can do to protect and maximize your cognitive abilities:

  • Stay Healthy: Lifestyle factors such as eating healthy and getting regular exercise can have an effect on your cognitive functioning. 
  • Think critically: Question your assumptions and ask questions about your thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions.
  • Stay Curious and Keep Learning: One great way to flex your cognitive abilities is to keep challenging yourself to learn more about the world.
  • Skip Multitasking: While it might seem like doing several things at once would help you get done faster, research has shown it actually decreases both productivity and work quality.

What Can Affect Your Cognition?

It is important to remember that these cognitive processes are complex and often imperfect. Some of the possible pitfalls that can affect cognition include:

  • Problems With Attention: Selective attention is a limited resource, so there are a number of things that can make it difficult to focus on everything in your environment. Attentional blink, for example, happens when you are so focused on one thing that you completely miss something else happening right in front of you.
  • Memory Problems And Limitations: Short-term memory is surprisingly brief, typically lasting just 20 to 30 seconds. Long-term memory can be surprisingly stable and enduring, on the other hand, with memories lasting years and even decades. Memory can also be surprisingly fragile and fallible. Sometimes we forget, and other times we are subject to misinformation effects that can even lead to the formation of false memories.
  • Cognitive Biases: Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking related to how people process and interpret information about the world. The confirmation bias is one common example that involves only paying attention to information that aligns with your existing beliefs while ignoring evidence that doesn’t support your views.

What is a Bias in Psychology?

Bias is a tendency to lean in favor of or against a person, group, idea, or thing, usually in a way that is unfair. Biases are natural — they are a product of human nature — and they don’t simply exist in a vacuum or in our mind’s — they affect the way we make decisions and act.

Types of Biases  in Psychology

In psychology, there are two main branches of biases: 

  • Conscious: Conscious bias is the biased attitudes about a certain group we are aware of. In conscious bias, we know we are being biased, and we are doing it intentionally. For example, a person prefers to work with men rather than women, or a person who doesn’t like to associate people with a different culture. These are all prejudices, which can discriminate against certain groups of people. In addition, conscious bias can be easily determined by the ideas and behaviour of a person.
  • Unconscious:  Unconscious bias or implicit bias refers to biased attitudes that operate outside your awareness and control. In other words, you may not be aware that you hold such biased attitudes unconsciously. Here, you may be doing something without realizing you are doing it. In fact, this unconscious bias can be in direct contrast to the beliefs and values you profess to hold. They are difficult to determine and can influence your actions and behaviours more than conscious biases. The dangerous thing is that we don’t realize that our behaviour has been influenced by this bias.

What is Cognitive Bias?

A cognitive bias is a subconscious error in thinking that leads you to misinterpret information from the world around you, and affects the rationality and accuracy of decisions and judgments. Biases are unconscious and automatic processes designed to make decision-making quicker and more efficient. Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, such as heuristics (mental shortcuts), social pressures, and emotions.

Cognitive bias is often a result of your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing — we receive roughly 11 million bits of information per second, but we can only process about 40 bits of information per second. Therefore, we often rely on mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to help make sense of the world with relative speed. As such, these errors tend to arise from problems related to thinking: memory, attention, and other mental mistakes.

In fact there are three terms closely associated with each other:

  • Cognitive Bias: predictable patterns of thought and behaviour leading to incorrect conclusions. Things like anchoring, where we are predictably led astray by the presence of a previous number we have seen.
  • Heuristic: mental short-cut to solve common problems. Things like social proof, how if others seem to like something that’s a short-cut for we’ll probably like it.
  • Logical Fallacy: a flaw in our reasoning leading to a faulty argument. Things like the sunk cost fallacy, where we will sometimes make ourselves unhappy in the future because of something we’ve already done that we can’t change. The logical step would be to choose the path that would make you happiest in the future regardless of any sunk costs up to now. Turns out that’s hard.

Signs of Cognitive Bias

Everyone exhibits cognitive bias. It might be easier to spot in others, but it is important to know that it is something that also affects your thinking. Some signs that you might be influenced by some type of cognitive bias include:

  • Only paying attention to news stories that confirm your opinions
  • Blaming outside factors when things don’t go your way
  • Attributing other people’s success to luck, but taking personal credit for your own accomplishments
  • Assuming that everyone else shares your opinions or beliefs
  • Learning a little about a topic and then assuming you know all there is to know about it

When you are making judgments and decisions about the world around you, you like to think that you are objective, logical, and capable of taking in and evaluating all the information that is available to you. Unfortunately, these biases sometimes trip us up, leading to poor decisions and bad judgments.

Common Causes of Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, but it is these mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, that often play a major contributing role. While they can often be surprisingly accurate, they can also lead to errors in thinking.

Common factors that can also contribute to these biases:

  • Emotions
  • Individual motivations
  • Limits on the mind’s ability to process information
  • Social pressures

Cognitive bias may also increase as people get older due to decreased cognitive flexibility.

Types of Cognitive Bias

According to the Cognitive Bias Codex, there are an estimated 180 cognitive biases (this list is frequently updated.)

Created by John Manoogian III and Buster Benson, this codex is a useful tool for visually representing all of the known biases that exist to date.

CodingHero - What is Cognitive Bias – An Overview Cognitive Bias Codex
The Cognitive Bias Codex – 180+ biases, designed by John Manoogian III (jm3).png

The biases are arranged in a circle and can be divided into four quadrants. Each quadrant is dedicated to a specific group of cognitive biases:

  • What Should We Remember?: Biases that affect our memory for people, events, and information
  • Too Much Information: Biases that affect how we perceive certain events and people
  • Not Enough Meaning: Biases that we use when we have too little information and need to fill in the gaps
  • Need To Act Fast: Biases that affect how we make decisions

The Cognitive Bias Codex is a handy visual tool that organizes biases in a meaningful way; however, it is worth pointing out that the codex lists heuristics and cognitive biases both as ‘biases.’

Ways to Overcome Cognitive Biases

Following are some of the effective ways of limiting the cognitive biases:

  • Be Aware: The first tip to overcome these biases is to acknowledge that they exist. When we know there are factors that can alter the way we see things, we’re more likely to be careful as we form judgments or make decisions.
  • Consider Current Factors That May be Influencing Your Decision: Is there anything in the current situation that could lead you to feel overconfident in your convictions? Or cause you to ignore certain information? Make sure not to fall victim to the bandwagon effect, or adopt attitudes simply because others are.
  • Reflect on the Past: Look for patterns in how you’ve perceived prior situations and where you might have made mistakes. If, for example, you see that you tend to ignore facts or overemphasize intuition. Then lean into opportunities to further explore data presented to you.
  • Be Curious: Being curious can help us avoid cognitive biases. Curiosity can help us pause long enough to ask questions. It stops us from assuming we’re right.
  • Strive for a Growth Mindset: People with growth mindsets believe that cognitive ability can be developed and tend to learn from criticism. Rather than covering up mistakes, they see them as an opportunity to learn. They don’t believe that factors are “fixed” or unchangeable. Cognitive bias modification is possible with some work and effort. A growth mindset is one of many heuristics that can help move you in the right direction.
  • Identify What Makes You Uncomfortable: Are there people or situations that rub you the wrong way? Ask yourself what makes you respond this way and whether you could have a bias that’s impacting your perspective.
  • Embrace the Opposite: Trying to understand an issue from both sides can make you a stronger critical thinker and help you see the world with more empathy. Push yourself to believe the opposite of your initial reaction and pay attention to what happens.
  • Seek Multiple Perspectives: Solicit feedback and perspectives from others. Asking others for their input can help us find potential blind spots and stop us from being overconfident.
  • Look for Disconfirming Evidence: Go out of your way to seek out information that runs counter to your existing belief.
  • Practice Intellectual Humility: Intellectual humility is about remaining open to the idea that you might be wrong. Rather than blindly standing by our convictions, it’s about asking, “what am I missing here?”

Cognitive biases are flaws in our thinking that can lead us to draw inaccurate conclusions. Most of the time such practices are harmful because it causes us to overlook some very critical information. It’s probably unrealistic to think that we can eliminate cognitive biases, but we can improve our ability to spot the situations where we will be vulnerable to them.

We will be discussing these biases in our next articles and ways to minimize them.

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