You make all your decisions by painstakingly collecting the appropriate information and relevant factors, then selecting the best, most rational choice.
Or do you?
Being a human being, your decisions are actually influenced by all sorts of irrational factors. Collectively, these factors are cognitive biases, and more than 50 of them have been identified. Many of them get used one way or another in various kinds of persuasion, whether it’s elections, advertising, or other kinds of behavioral economics.
They’re like the cognitive equivalent of visual illusions, writes Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, in a TED talk on the subject. You know, the sort of thing that makes you see a perfectly ordinary blue-and-black dress as white-and-gold, even when you know better.
What makes cognitive biases bad? Depending on which ones nab you, you can end up neglecting to collect or pay the right amount of attention to your data and, as a result, make non-optimal decisions.
Research has demonstrated that women entrepreneurs, for example, have more difficulty getting funding than do male entrepreneurs because the traits people tend to associate with successful entrepreneurs are also traits that people are more likely to associate with men.
“Our ideal cultural image of an entrepreneur is similar to that of a lone warrior, which is based on a set of stereotypically masculine traits like aggressiveness, independence, competitiveness and a willingness to take risks,” writes Sarah Thebaud, who performed the research. “When women propose an innovative idea, they show that they are willing to go out on a limb and, in doing so, signal possession of supposedly ‘entrepreneurial’ traits. In this way, women have to work harder to prove to others that they have what it takes to run a successful start-up.”
Some other cognitive biases include:
- Anchoring bias. “People are over reliant on the first piece of information they hear,” write Drake Baer and Gus Lubin in Business Insider. “In a salary negotiation, for instance, whoever makes the first offer establishes a range of reasonable possibilities in each person’s mind. Any counteroffer will naturally react to or be anchored by that opening offer.”
- Recency effect. This describes a condition where “the most recent information you learned has a disproportionate impact on your opinion about a topic,” writes author and improvisational actor Curtis Frye in his Improspectives blog. “If the topic’s one I don’t know much about, the information I just learned will affect my view more than it would if I knew a lot about the issue.”
- Confirmation bias. This is a tendency to give more attention to people and sources who agree with us and, conversely, discounting the people and sources who disagree 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,” writes George Dvorsky in IO9. “We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views.” But that means we could be ignoring the very sources that tell us why something is a bad idea.
- Framing effect. This is related to George Lakoff’s notion of “framing,” or putting something in perspective to make people look at it favorably. This occurs when a person creates a decoy alternative to make other alternatives sound more palatable, such as an obviously way-too-expensive method of doing a project.
- Then there’s the bias blind spot, sort of a catch-all, which involves the unwillingness to recognize or admit cognitive biases. “It prevents us from being aware of—and, potentially, resisting—the many other cognitive biases that affect our trading decisions,” writes Michel Prieu in BDLive. Unfortunately, there’s a “tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in oneself,” notes The Examined Life. See, you can’t win.
So how do you guard against cognitive bias when you make decisions? One way is to accept that they exist and to watch out for bias blind spots in yourself and others in your company. Another is to rigorously follow written procedures. “Besides providing a defense against our cognitive disabilities, checklists also help us to avoid creeping determinism—the sense that grows on us in retrospect that what has happened was inevitable,” Prieu writes.
Keep in mind, too, that you can use cognitive bias to your advantage, especially when you’re trying to persuade other people. When you’re putting together a presentation, for example, glance over this list and think about how you can exploit it—such as by mentioning your most important point last to take advantage of recency bias, or by suggesting a ridiculously expensive alternative to use the framing effect so your own idea sounds more reasonable.
And just remember, this is the best blog you’ve ever read.
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