Learning to learn: fighting cognitive biases

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In a world with more information than ever, figuring out how to use the brain to its fullest potential, as well as filling it with as much knowledge as possible, is the main focus of a vast amount of people in this world.

I’ve made it clear on many occasions that I believe in the importance of being a perpetual learner. One of the key activities associated with learning is exploring and understanding the way the human brain functions, and using the results of this to properly hack the critical thinking process. For example, did you know that something called a cognitive bias exists? This term refers to the tendency to think in certain ways.

Cognitive biases range from the bandwagon effect – when truths are accepted because a large amount of people also accept them – to the confirmation bias – when people believe information that confirms what they think or believe in. According to those who study psychology and behavioral economics, hundreds of cognitive biases exist. It’s necessary to educate ourselves on these biases so that we can overcome them and make sure we’re thinking as clearly and critically as possible when it comes to decision making and information processing.

Critical thinking is an increasingly important skill that has been overlooked by many as information becomes more accessible and superfluous. Today, a critical thinker is able to set him or herself apart by lending his or her brain to the many others who have not yet figured it out. Becoming this “thought leader,” if you will, is beneficial in many ways, including the ability to gain the trust of those with whom you wish to connect as well as the authority in the space in which you have established your expertise.

While it’s not possible to go through a list of each possible cognitive bias with each of life’s decisions, it is possible to take a few actions and train our brains to overcome these phenomena on a more general level. Here’s an investigative list of 5 cognitive biases and suggestions on how to fight them.

The Bias: The Backfire Effect – the rejection of evidence that contradicts your point of view.

The Anti-Bias: Rather than treating your own points of view as fact, view them as hypotheses. Being proven wrong by data is not a bad thing; it just means you learned something new.

The application: Your boss just informed you of an article he read explaining a study in which orange call-to-action buttons garner the most clicks. Your first response is that this can’t be possible, because you hate orange – it’s the ugliest color! You step back, read the aforementioned article, and realize that this information actually does make sense. (You still don’t have to buy any orange clothes, though, don’t worry).

The Bias: The Hard-Easy Bias – the pattern of overconfidence in easy situations and under confidence in difficult situations.

The Anti-Bias: Define and recognize your capabilities. The issue at hand will be solved if you can do it, and you will be able to come up with another solution if you cannot do it on your own. Try to briefly remove yourself from the situation before you begin, and imagine what you would tell a close friend or colleague if they were the one faced with the problem. Then, take your own advice!

The application: Every morning, you arrive at work and look at your to do list. You’ve been skipping over “write Q1 content strategy” all week in favor of “answer e-mails” and “tweet.” While the latter is certainly a more daunting task, you are going to have to do it eventually, and you wouldn’t be tasked with it if you weren’t fully capable of completing it. Remember last time you thought you wouldn’t be able to finish your strategy? You did it then, and you’ll do it again now.

The Bias: Irrational Escalation – compounding a bad investment, because “it’s already bad.”

The Anti-Bias: Bear with me – here comes a metaphor. This reminds me of a health tip I once read: If you have one piece of cake, this doesn’t mean your entire day is ruined. You don’t have to give up and eat the whole thing just because you started. The same goes for investing money in a sinking stock or failing on a part of a project. If one thing turns out badly, the best thing to do is to make the rest of it turn out well.

The application: “I just bought 50 shares of Facebook stock, and it tanked! May as well just buy 500 more, it can’t get any worse!” Slow down there, tiger. Losing $2,500 is certainly not the same as losing $30k. Think about that.

The Bias: The Observer-Expectancy Effect – when expectations influence outcome.

The Anti-Bias: Once again, remove yourself from the situation. When conducting a test or experiment, be open to the (50%) possibility that your hypothesis will be disproven. As previously mentioned, this will only mean that you learned something new. When experimenting or analyzing data, tainting or angling the results to support your hypothesis will only hurt you in the long run.

The application: Your colleague just finished two months’ worth of research trying to figure out what your customers see valuable about your product. Just as he begins presenting, you exclaim, “I knew it! Our value prop is X!” Although the first piece number you saw might have supported this, your colleague actually didn’t get to the second piece, which clearly disproves that. Your mind, however, is already closed. Acknowledge that, get in there, and open it back up. Remember that 50% chance that your hypothesis would be proved wrong? As great of a critical thinker you may be, data is still the smartest thing in the whole world – never forget it.

The Bias: Reactance – the desire to do the opposite of what you’re asked or advised, simply to prove your freedom of choice.

The Anti-Bias: In one of the more difficult bias avoidance situations, this calls for the swallowing of pride and recognition that doing what you’re asked and/or advised is probably in your best interest, and you probably would have been perfectly okay with doing it if someone else didn’t tell you to. Don’t worry, everyone will remain aware of your freedom of choice.

The application: Just as you’re about to start reading that book your friend sent you a few weeks ago, she calls you to bug you about how you haven’t picked it up yet. Even though you were about to, you suddenly feel the need to let her know that you’ll get to it when you can and you’re a very busy person! You know it would make her happy if you just read it, and trust me, she knows you’re an adult with free will. With that in mind, swallow your pride and thank her for reminder, then pour yourself a cup of tea and dig into that (probably amazing) book.

Bonus Bias!

The Bias: Bias Blind Spot – not recognizing the existence of cognitive biases.

The Anti-Bias: Read this post and open your mind!

The application: You just read a great article on cognitive biases and advice on how to overcome them. You want the rest of the world to be able to do this also, so you tweet it!

What is the most complex cognitive bias you’ve encountered? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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About the Author

Ally Greer
Ally is Scoop.it's Director of Content & Community. She loves to geek out over anything social, Internet, or tech related. When she isn't working, you'll probably find her running the streets of San Francisco. Follow Ally on Twitter @allygreer.
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10 years ago

I find this article so interesting, I would like to translate it to French in order to use it in my professional practice. Would you allow me? I commit to cite my source, of course. Please confirm your approval : france.lefebvre@fortunagroupeconseil.com

Thanks in advance,


The Rice Process
The Rice Process
10 years ago


Scoop.it member
Scoop.it member
10 years ago

Ally Greer I’d recommend reading “Thinking Fast & Slowy” by Daniel Kahneman. He’s a pioneer in the field of cognitive biases.

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