What is Cognitive Bias?

cognitive bias and fake news

Despite what we would like to believe, we don’t perceive reality as it is.

We see it the way we would like to see it. It’s not an intentional decision but a series of subconscious acts shaped by our cognitive biases. For the sake of our mental health, it’s important to understand the common cognitive biases and how they influence the way we see the world.

Cognitive biases are pervasive in all spheres, from politics, sports, investing, and relationships. Two individuals could watch the same news and understand them differently. Or you could see the same behaviour from two individuals and perceive them differently. 

The facts are not the variables here. It’s our perception that varies due to our inherent cognitive bias. In some cases, you might realise that you might have been biased during the act or later. But in several other instances, these biases get normalised, and it would be difficult to spot them.

Cognitive bias impairs logical judgment. While we may want to believe that our beliefs and actions are rational and objective, these biases blind us to the distortion. 

This has serious implications for mental health and so, we need to understand why they happen and the most common forms in which cognitive biases influence us. 

Why do cognitive biases happen?

Put simply; they make it easy for our brains to process information. Our brain has to make sense of every new event or situation it faces. But our attention span is in short supply. We don’t have the resources or time to accurately or objectively analyse every event, individual, or interaction.

So, the brain uses shortcuts to form judgments.

Cognitive biases are these easy alternatives through which the brain processes information at a fast pace. In other words, our brains trade accuracy for speed, which results in these cognitive biases.

How cognitive biases influence us

Confirmation bias with facts and prior beliefs written on the page.

A cognitive bias holds us back from forming an accurate and objective view of individuals, relationships, events, issues, and the world at large. We begin to believe what we perceive to be true, and over time, that becomes the reality for us. It cements us into our biased views. 

It then creates a vicious cycle. All new additional information is absorbed and analysed with these biases, which further strengthens our prejudice. This polarises our thinking and makes us oppose anyone with a different opinion. This is harmful to our mental health and personal relationships.  

Once we start forming biased views of our spouses, anything they do will only act to justify that bias. The same applies to our biases toward issues, celebrities, politicians, and government bodies. Cognitive biases also remove objectivity and impartiality from our thought processes. This is how the same individual can have two views about the same act and not be aware of it.

We look at our acts through a different filter and the same acts from our friends, colleagues, or partner in a different light. When our nation does something, we look at it in a particular way, and when another country does the same, we perceive it differently. What our religion does is perceived differently from the actions of other religions. 

Understanding some common instances of cognitive bias may help us objectively analyse our perceptions. The next time we rush into an opinion, it might encourage us to step back and ask whether we are reacting to the facts or if our inherent bias is clouding our opinion. See our cognitive behaviour therapy section for more information.

11 common types of cognitive bias

anchoring effect

1. Anchoring bias

This happens when we give too much weightage and credibility to the first information that comes our way. That becomes our anchor for any additional fact. The bias, also called focalism, can be best explained in the way we look at prices.

If you’re planning to put your house in the market, the first valuation you receive becomes the anchor. Any other price will be judged against it and not independently. Anchoring bias can influence doctors to form medical opinions based on their first impressions. Their diagnosis will be anchored to that view and so, could be misleading. 

2. Availability heuristic

This is when you place extra significance on the first example that you can think of. So, irrelevant of the facts, you may place undue importance on something just because several instances of it easily come to your mind.

If you know of two runners who developed knee injuries, that will cloud your judgment of running. You may believe that running is inherently dangerous to the knees. 

3. Actor-observer bias

Whether we are an actor or an observer in a situation will influence how we perceive it. If we had to explain what, why, or how we did something – or didn’t do it – we will look for external causes. But when we describe the actions of others, we limit the reasons to their internal selves. 

So, if you’re late for a meeting, it’s because the traffic was bad. But when a colleague is late for a meeting, it’s because they’re the kind of individual who’s always late. 

4. Confirmation bias

This is what’s at play when most people consume news. They look forward to information that will confirm their existing opinions. They’re not seeking impartial facts or narratives. They’re happy with whatever strengthens their existing beliefs. 

So, we follow those we like on social media, watch only those channels that support our views, as they constantly reinforce our views.

5. Misinformation effect

This bias occurs when an individual’s memory of an event is heavily influenced by events that happened later. This makes their memory of a particular event, interaction, or engagement embellished and misleading. 

The individual won’t be aware of the misinformation and so won’t recognise it when they misremember events. This is how various people can have different memories of the same office party. 

6. Self-serving bias

Whenever they succeed, people credit themselves. But when they fail, they blame it on external reasons. That’s a tendency created by this common bias. This leaves people with an exaggerated notion of their abilities that blinds them to their weaknesses. 

So, you were selected for the project team because you’re talented. Your project didn’t succeed because of your colleagues’ incompetence. 

7. Hindsight bias

This bias makes us see events as predictable, while in reality, they would have been difficult to forecast. Even when the incident is random, we believe that we knew all along that it would happen. 

So, after a stock rises, you would feel that you knew it was going to rise. After it falls, you would think that you could have predicted it. This would give you a false belief that you can predict stock movements. 

8. False consensus effect

cognitive bias

This is the tendency to exaggerate how much others agree with your views. You may believe that plenty of people share your views even when the subject is controversial. Or, you would assume that most of the people agree with you on most things.

This bias grows because you would normally spend more time with those family members and friends who agree with you. This encourages you to think that everyone else would share your views. 

9. Optimism bias

With this bias, people tend to be more optimistic about their future. They discount the possibility of negative events, including death, loss of job, health problems, divorce, accidents, etc. 

This is closely tied to the availability heuristic. Whenever we think of potential negative events, we assume that they would only happen to other people. This encourages people to take risks without objective assessments. 

10. Dunning-Kruger effect

According to this bias, people lack the ability to accurately estimate their potential. In other words, people think that they are more intelligent and capable than they really are. They don’t have meta-awareness to realise their lack of awareness.

This is especially common in fields like politics and the stock market, where people without adequate intellectual capability or domain expertise believe that they are more than capable. 

11. Halo effect

This is when our first impression of an individual shapes our overall impression of their ability and character. Quite rightly, it’s also called the physical attractiveness stereotype. When we find someone attractive, we attribute other qualities like confidence, capability, generosity, and courage to them.

So, when an attractive celebrity endorses a product, we tend to assume that the product would also be valuable. Good-looking job applicants are also presumed to be good at what they do.

In short

Biases won’t work alone.

Sometimes we may be victims of multiple biases that severely cloud our judgment and impact our mental health. So, the next time you have an opinion about an individual, event, or issue, it may help to pause and wonder whether it’s an objective evaluation or whether it’s your cognitive biases at work.

Naming your bias and challenging it with more information is one of the most effective ways to have unbiased, logical, and rational views. 


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