This essay is the second in a short series about taking personal responsibility for improving the quality of the content circulating in the information environment. In essay one, ‘How to Fight Information Pollution’, we considered methods we can adopt to help ensure the information we share is integral and truthful. This second essay focuses on a process to help us gain greater awareness of our individual cognitive biases and allergies.
What Is Cognitive Bias?
A cognitive bias is a predetermined opinion of someone or something based on facts we know, think we know, or do not know. The human brain creates these assumptions as mental shortcuts to speed up information processing and aid in swiftly making sense of what we see.
Cognitive biases come in various forms, but they all function as systemic flaws in an individual’s thinking style that come from their own views, observations, or points of view. There are many biases people encounter, which impact how we think, act, and make decisions.
The Cognitive Bias Codex Chart is the most comprehensive list of known biases, detailing no less than 188 different types. Click on the image below for a high-definition version of the chart.
How Does Cognitive Bias Impact the Way We Think?
People struggle to communicate correct information or arrive at the truth when biased. A cognitive bias clouds our critical thinking and may spread false information that can harm others.
Biases cause us to ignore the knowledge that could be difficult or undesirable rather than looking into the facts that might help us to a more accurate conclusion. Additionally, biases might lead us to detect relationships or connections between concepts that aren’t necessarily there.
How Might We Become Aware Of Our Individual Biases?
We can become familiar with our individual biases with a self-reflection exercise. No doubt, there are numerous such exercises one might choose to adopt. My process meant cross-referencing several online posts detailing the main types of biases. I listed the most consistently referenced and, consequently, those I deemed most pertinent.
Next, I entered each bias and its definition into a table in a Google Sheets document. I quietly thought about each while reflecting on occasions when I had demonstrated the bias in question before inputting my answers into a column in the same Google Sheet. Finally, I listed the insights gleaned from the exercise while considering how I might apply the lessons learnt in the future.
Now, let me be clear, I am not stating that this process is scientifically or empirically validatable. The answers are based purely on my assessment and judgement. Nevertheless, it was a highly effective means for bringing to my conscious mind what biases tend to have the most impactful effect on my thinking.
Here are the 12 biases I chose to focus on, taking definitions from different sources:
- Confirmation bias. The tendency to seek out information that supports something you already believe and is a particularly pernicious subset of cognitive bias — you remember the hits and forget the misses, a flaw in human reasoning. People will cue into things that matter to them, and dismiss the things that don’t, often leading to the “ostrich effect,” where a subject buries their head in the sand to avoid information that may disprove their original point.
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect. This particular bias refers to how people perceive a concept or event to be simplistic just because their knowledge about it may be simple or lacking — the less you know about something, the less complicated it may appear. However, this form of bias limits curiosity — people don’t feel the need to explore a concept further because it seems simplistic to them. This bias can also lead people to think they are smarter than they are, because they have reduced a complex idea to a simplistic understanding.
- In-group bias. This type of bias refers to how people are more likely to support or believe someone within their own social group than an outsider. This bias removes objectivity from any selection or hiring process, as we tend to favour those we know and want to help.
- Self-serving bias. A self-serving bias is an assumption that good things happen to us when we’ve done all the right things, but bad things happen to us because of circumstances outside our control or things others purport. This bias results in blaming outside circumstances for bad situations rather than taking personal responsibility.
- Availability bias. This bias refers to the tendency to use the information we can quickly recall when evaluating a topic or idea — even if this information is not the best representation of the topic or idea. Using this mental shortcut, we deem the information we can most easily recall as valid and ignore alternative solutions or opinions.
- Fundamental attribution error. This bias refers to the tendency to attribute someone’s particular behaviours to existing, unfounded stereotypes while attributing our own similar behaviour to external factors.
- Hindsight bias. Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along effect, is when people perceive events to be more predictable after they happen. With this bias, people overestimate their ability to predict an outcome, even though the information they had at the time would not have led them to the correct outcome. Hindsight bias can lead to overconfidence in one’s ability to predict future outcomes. This type of bias often happens in sports and world affairs.
- Anchoring bias. The anchoring bias pertains to those who rely too heavily on the first piece of information they receive — an “anchoring” fact — and base all subsequent judgments or opinions on this fact.
- Optimism bias. This bias refers to how we, as humans, are more likely to estimate a positive outcome if we are in a good mood.
- Pessimism bias. This bias refers to how we, as humans, are more likely to estimate a negative outcome if we are in a bad mood.
- The halo effect. This bias refers to the tendency to allow our impression of a person, concept, or entity in one domain to influence our overall impression.
- Status quo bias. The status quo bias refers to the preference to keep things in their current state while regarding any change as a loss. This bias results in the difficulty of processing or accepting change.
If you wish to run the same ‘audit’ on yourself, here is a link to an empty version of the Google Sheets document I used. Just ‘Save As’ a new copy.
What Is A Cognitive Allergy?
A cognitive allergy, probably better known as a ‘philosophical allergy’, is an uncontrollable and unfavourable emotional reaction to a concept or person. As with biases, allergies impair our capacity to make fair judgements and objective assessments.
In short, if a word makes you uncomfortable, you are allergic to the person or concept it denotes. Let’s look at some concepts which often trigger an adverse emotional reaction in people:
If you suddenly need to justify why any of these terms allude to something intrinsically negative, I’m sorry to say you the likelihood is that you have an allergy. The good news, though, is understanding that you are experiencing an instinctive allergic reaction helps it to have less influence over your thinking processes!
As with the biases audit I conducted on myself, I did something similar with my cognitive allergies. Here are the five words I identified as being most allergic to, ordered hierarchically:
- Identity Politics;
- Gemma Collins.
Ultimately, the truth and worth of something must always be founded on conscientious examination. It is not our feelings for or against something that determines whether it is right or wrong. Knowing when our brain is lying to us is tricky since emotions frequently entice reason into creating realities that support those gut feelings, positively or negatively.
As explained in this essay, I’ve found the trick is to sit down, assess ourselves and consciously act to identify and contemplate those societal elements that have the strongest tendencies to trigger us emotionally. This way, we can take strides towards retaking control of our minds, ideas, and realities at this time of intense information warfare and pollution.
Read widely | Think critically | Share cautiously
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