We are all subject to biases, those annoying glitches in our thinking that cause us to make questionable decisions and reach erroneous conclusions. I have spoken and written about them many times as to how they hamper good decision-making, and on a recent podcast on biases, I recalled a wonderful article by George Dvorsky on 12 of the most common and harmful biases that you need to know about.  Thought I would share this list of 12 over this month and next month’s MindShifts® Matters.

To start with, what is a bias or, more specifically, a cognitive bias?  A cognitive bias is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking — a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution, and miscalculations (such as statistical errors or a false sense of probability).

So here are six of the twelve top biases. Do you recognise any of these in your decision-making? Which one do you identify with the most? Or do we all have a little of all of these?

Confirmation Bias

We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views.  It is this preferential mode of behaviour that leads to confirmation bias — the often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that fuel our pre-existing views while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten our worldview.

Ingroup Bias

Somewhat similar to the confirmation bias is the ingroup bias, a manifestation of our innate tribalistic tendencies. And strangely, much of this effect may have to do with oxytocin — the so-called “love molecule.” This neurotransmitter, while helping us to forge tighter bonds with people in our ingroup, performs the exact opposite function for those on the outside — it makes us suspicious, fearful, and even disdainful of others. Ultimately, the ingroup bias causes us to overestimate the abilities and value of our immediate group at the expense of people we don’t really know.

Gambler’s Fallacy

It’s called a fallacy, but it’s more of a glitch in our thinking. We tend to put a tremendous amount of weight on previous events, believing that they’ll somehow influence future outcomes. The classic example is coin tossing. After flipping heads, say, five consecutive times, our inclination is to predict an increase in the likelihood that the next coin toss will be tails — that the odds must certainly be in the favour of heads. But in reality, the odds are still 50/50. As statisticians say, the outcomes in different tosses are statistically independent, and the probability of any outcome is still 50%.

Post-Purchase Rationalization

Remember that time you bought something totally unnecessary, faulty, or overly expensive, and then you rationalized the purchase to such an extent that you convinced yourself it was a great idea all along? Yeah, that’s post-purchase rationalization in action — a kind of built-in mechanism that makes us feel better after we make crappy decisions, especially at the cash register. Also known as Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, it’s a way of subconsciously justifying our purchases — especially expensive ones.

Neglecting Probability

Very few of us have a problem getting into a car and going for a drive, but many of us experience great trepidation about stepping inside an aeroplane and flying at 35,000 feet. Flying, quite obviously, is a wholly unnatural and seemingly hazardous activity. Yet virtually all of us know and acknowledge the fact that the probability of dying in an auto accident is significantly greater than getting killed in a plane crash — but our brains won’t release us from this crystal clear logic. It is the same phenomenon that makes us worry about getting killed in an act of terrorism as opposed to something far more probable, like falling down the stairs or accidental poisoning.

Observational Selection Bias

This is the effect of suddenly noticing things we didn’t notice that much before. A perfect example is what happens after we buy a new car and we inexplicably start to see the same car virtually everywhere. A similar effect happens to pregnant women who suddenly notice a lot of other pregnant women around them. Or it could be a unique number or song. It’s not that these things are appearing more frequently; it’s that we’ve (for whatever reason) selected the item in our mind and, in turn, are noticing it more often. The trouble is, most people don’t recognize this as an observational selection bias and actually believe these items or events are happening with increased frequency — which can be a very disconcerting feeling. It also contributes to the feeling that the appearance of certain things or events couldn’t possibly be a coincidence (even though it is).


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