What it is
The term “cognitive bias” has been around since the early 1970s. A cognitive bias is what you might think it is: it’s a thinking (cognitive) prejudice (bias). Psychologist Kendra Cherry defines it as “a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgements people make.”
Cognitive biases are like a part of yourself you can’t see. They’re hidden, and everyone has and shows them from time to time. And because we’re unaware of them, they lurk below the surface and influence our behaviour.
A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgements people make.
– Kendra Cherry
Cognitive bias examples
There are dozens of cognitive biases. Wikipedia lists nearly 200 cognitive biases, and the list continues to grow. In 2017, researchers at the University of Southampton identified the SPOT effect, which stands for “spontaneous preference for own theories.”
Some cognitive biases, such as the SPOT effect, are quite specific, and relate to particular circumstances. The IKEA effect — “the tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result” is another, rather humorous, example of a situational cognitive bias.
Other cognitive biases are more generalized and therefore more common. Of these, Derrick Farnell says, confirmation bias — “the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions” — and availability bias — our bias towards forming judgements on the basis of whichever relevant information happens to be most readily available to our mind” are the most discussed.
Dangers of cognitive bias
Studies consistently show people tend to overestimate their performance as well as the accuracy of their knowledge.
Of all the cognitive biases, however, the overconfidence effect — “excessive confidence in one’s own answers to questions” — is identified by psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman as “the most consequential of the biases to which human judgment is vulnerable.”
“Studies consistently show people tend to overestimate their performance as well as the accuracy of their knowledge,” Amy Morin says at verywellmind. Overconfidence can also lead people to take more personal and financial risks and to undervalue others’ points of view, tendencies that can be damaging in the workplace as well as to individuals.
Essentially, cognitive biases ensure that we don’t know what we don’t know. They limit our field of vision and consequently limit our potential to learn, understand, and grow.
Check your own bias
Want to check your own biases?
What’s Your Decision-Making Bias? from the New Yorker
24 Cognitive Biases that are Warping Your Perception of Reality visualization from Visual Capitalist
What you can do
Recognizing that everyone, including you, has cognitive biases will take you a long way toward mitigating their potential harm. (And if you think you don’t have a cognitive bias, there’s a cognitive bias for that, too — the bias blind spot.)
Here are some additional tips:
- Listen better, says Peter Baumann. “Understanding the predispositions we bring to the table should make us more open to understanding other people’s points of view.”
- Find a middle way between too much and not enough confidence, says Don Moore at Psychology Today. The middle way “requires the willingness to consider the possibility that you are wrong, to listen to evidence, and to change your mind.”
- Embrace group work. Innovator, entrepreneur and adventurer Krisztina “Z” Holly emphasizes the importance of the team in entrepreneurial start-ups. “There have been studies that show that the more founders (up to five) you have in a start-up, the more likely you are to be successful.” The thinking is that the variety and range of viewpoints strengthens the team and the plan.
- Seek out diversity. Evidence shows that hiring people like yourself can prevent you from seeing the bigger picture and recognizing opportunities. Margaret Heffernan at Inc.com says, “You need lots of extra pairs of eyes and ears—and you need them to see and hear things that you can't. Otherwise, as you all look together in one direction, you'll miss the huge hulking opportunity that lurks in the blind spot just outside your line of vision.”
- Gather data and use it to inform decision-making. Gaurav Vohra at Entrepreneur.com says, “It’s fine to rely on instinct when your company’s just getting off the ground, and its core agenda is being conceptualised. In the long run however, such an approach narrows your horizons and compromises your ability to spot potential market opportunities.”
Interested in learning more about diversity and inclusiveness? Take a course on creating inclusive learning environments or explore cultural diversity with this interactive tool.