A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own "subjective social reality" from their perception of the input. An individual's construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.
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Some cognitive biases are presumably adaptive. Cognitive biases may lead to more effective actions in a given context. Furthermore, allowing cognitive biases enables faster decisions which can be desirable when timeliness is more valuable than accuracy, as illustrated in heuristics. Other cognitive biases are a "by-product" of human processing limitations, resulting from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms (bounded rationality), or simply from a limited capacity for information processing.
A continually evolving list of cognitive biases has been identified over the last six decades of research on human judgment and decision-making in cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics. Kahneman and Tversky (1996) argue that cognitive biases have efficient practical implications for areas including clinical judgment, entrepreneurship, finance, and management.
The notion of cognitive biases was introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972 and grew out of their experience of people's innumeracy, or inability to reason intuitively with the greater orders of magnitude. Tversky, Kahneman and colleagues demonstrated several replicable ways in which human judgments and decisions differ from rational choice theory. Tversky and Kahneman explained human differences in judgment and decision-making in terms of heuristics. Heuristics involve mental shortcuts which provide swift estimates about the possibility of uncertain occurrences. Heuristics are simple for the brain to compute but sometimes introduce "severe and systematic errors."
For example, the representativeness heuristic is defined as the tendency to "judge the frequency or likelihood" of an occurrence by the extent of which the event "resembles the typical case". The "Linda Problem" illustrates the representativeness heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983). Participants were given a description of "Linda" that suggests Linda might well be a feminist (e.g., she is said to be concerned about discrimination and social justice issues). They were then asked whether they thought Linda was more likely to be (a) a "bank teller" or (b) a "bank teller and active in the feminist movement." A majority chose answer (b). This error (mathematically, answer (b) cannot be more likely than answer (a)) is an example of the "conjunction fallacy"; Tversky and Kahneman argued that respondents chose (b) because it seemed more "representative" or typical of persons who might fit the description of Linda. The representativeness heuristic may lead to errors such as activating stereotypes and inaccurate judgments of others (Haselton et al., 2005, p. 726).
Alternatively, critics of Kahneman and Tversky such as Gerd Gigerenzer argue that heuristics should not lead us to conceive of human thinking as riddled with irrational cognitive biases, but rather to conceive rationality as an adaptive tool that is not identical to the rules of formal logic or the probability calculus. Nevertheless, experiments such as the "Linda problem" grew into heuristics and biases research programs, which spread beyond academic psychology into other disciplines including medicine and political science.
Biases can be distinguished on a number of dimensions. Examples include:
- Biases specific to groups (such as the risky shift) versus biases at the individual level.
- Biases that affect decision-making, where the desirability of options has to be considered (e.g., sunk costs fallacy).
- Biases, such as illusory correlation, that affect judgment of how likely something is or whether one thing is the cause of another.
- Biases that affect memory, such as consistency bias (remembering one's past attitudes and behaviour as more similar to one's present attitudes).
- Biases that reflect a subject's motivation, for example, the desire for a positive self-image leading to egocentric bias and the avoidance of unpleasant cognitive dissonance.
Other biases are due to the particular way the brain perceives, forms memories and makes judgments. This distinction is sometimes described as "hot cognition" versus "cold cognition", as motivated reasoning can involve a state of arousal. Among the "cold" biases,
- some are due to ignoring relevant information (e.g., neglect of probability),
- some involve a decision or judgment being affected by irrelevant information (for example the framing effect where the same problem receives different responses depending on how it is described; or the distinction bias where choices presented together have different outcomes than those presented separately), and
- others give excessive weight to an unimportant but salient feature of the problem (e.g., anchoring).
The fact that some biases reflect motivation, specifically the motivation to have positive attitudes to oneself, accounts for the fact that many biases are self-serving or self-directed (e.g., illusion of asymmetric insight, self-serving bias). There are also biases in how subjects evaluate in-groups or out-groups; evaluating in-groups as more diverse and "better" in many respects, even when those groups are arbitrarily defined (ingroup bias, outgroup homogeneity bias).
Some cognitive biases belong to the subgroup of attentional biases, which refers to paying increased attention to certain stimuli. It has been shown, for example, that people addicted to alcohol and other drugs pay more attention to drug-related stimuli. Common psychological tests to measure those biases are the Stroop task and the dot probe task.
Individuals' susceptibility to some types of cognitive biases can be measured by the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) developed by Frederick (2005).
List of biases
The following is a list of the more commonly studied cognitive biases:
|Fundamental attribution error (FAE)||Also known as the correspondence bias is the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviours observed in others. At the same time, individuals under-emphasize the role and power of situational influences on the same behaviour. Jones and Harris' (1967) classic study illustrates the FAE. Despite being made aware that the target's speech direction (pro-Castro/anti-Castro) was assigned to the writer, participants ignored the situational pressures and attributed pro-Castro attitudes to the writer when the speech represented such attitudes.|
|Priming bias||The tendency to be influenced by what someone else has said to create preconceived idea.|
|Confirmation bias||The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. In addition, individuals may discredit information that does not support their views. The confirmation bias is related to the concept of cognitive dissonance, in that individuals may reduce inconsistency by searching for information which re-confirms their views (Jermias, 2001, p. 146).|
|Affinity bias||The tendency to be biased toward people like ourselves|
|Self-serving bias||The tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.|
|Belief bias||When one's evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion.|
|Framing||Using a too-narrow approach and description of the situation or issue.|
|Hindsight bias||Sometimes called the "I-knew-it-all-along" effect, is the inclination to see past events as being predictable.|
Many social institutions rely on individuals to make rational judgments.
The securities regulation regime largely assumes that all investors act as perfectly rational persons. In truth, actual investors face cognitive limitations from biases, heuristics, and framing effects.
A fair jury trial, for example, requires that the jury ignore irrelevant features of the case, weigh the relevant features appropriately, consider different possibilities open-mindedly and resist fallacies such as appeal to emotion. The various biases demonstrated in these psychological experiments suggest that people will frequently fail to do all these things. However, they fail to do so in systematic, directional ways that are predictable.
Cognitive biases are also related to the persistence of superstition, to large social issues such as prejudice, and they also work as a hindrance in the acceptance of scientific non-intuitive knowledge by the public.
However, in some academic disciplines, the study of bias is very popular. For instance, bias is a wide spread and well studied phenomenon because most decisions that concern the minds and hearts of entrepreneurs are computationally intractable.
Because they cause systematic errors, cognitive biases cannot be compensated for using a wisdom of the crowd technique of averaging answers from several people. Debiasing is the reduction of biases in judgment and decision-making through incentives, nudges, and training. Cognitive bias mitigation and cognitive bias modification are forms of debiasing specifically applicable to cognitive biases and their effects. Reference class forecasting is a method for systematically debiasing estimates and decisions, based on what Daniel Kahneman has dubbed the outside view.
Similar to Gigerenzer (1996), Haselton et al. (2005) state the content and direction of cognitive biases are not "arbitrary" (p. 730). Moreover, cognitive biases can be controlled. One debiasing technique aims to decrease biases by encouraging individuals to use controlled processing compared to automatic processing. In relation to reducing the FAE, monetary incentives and informing participants they will be held accountable for their attributions have been linked to the increase of accurate attributions. Training has also shown to reduce cognitive bias. Morewedge and colleagues (2015) found that research participants exposed to one-shot training interventions, such as educational videos and debiasing games that taught mitigating strategies, exhibited significant reductions in their commission of six cognitive biases immediately and up to 3 months later.
Cognitive bias modification refers to the process of modifying cognitive biases in healthy people and also refers to a growing area of psychological (non-pharmaceutical) therapies for anxiety, depression and addiction called cognitive bias modification therapy (CBMT). CBMT is sub-group of therapies within a growing area of psychological therapies based on modifying cognitive processes with or without accompanying medication and talk therapy, sometimes referred to as applied cognitive processing therapies (ACPT). Although cognitive bias modification can refer to modifying cognitive processes in healthy individuals, CBMT is a growing area of evidence-based psychological therapy, in which cognitive processes are modified to relieve suffering from serious depression, anxiety, and addiction. CBMT techniques are technology assisted therapies that are delivered via a computer with or without clinician support. CBM combines evidence and theory from the cognitive model of anxiety, cognitive neuroscience, and attentional models.
Common theoretical causes of some cognitive biases
Bias arises from various processes that are sometimes difficult to distinguish. These include:
- Bounded rationality — limits on optimization and rationality
- Attribute substitution — making a complex, difficult judgment by unconsciously replacing it with an easier judgment
- Attribution theory
- Cognitive dissonance, and related:
- Information-processing shortcuts (heuristics), including:
- Availability heuristic — estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples
- Representativeness heuristic — judging probabilities based on resemblance
- Affect heuristic — basing a decision on an emotional reaction rather than a calculation of risks and benefits
- Emotional and moral motivations deriving, for example, from:
- Introspection illusion
- Misinterpretations or misuse of statistics; innumeracy.
- Social influence
- The brain's limited information processing capacity
- Noisy information processing (distortions during storage in and retrieval from memory). For example, a 2012 Psychological Bulletin article suggests that at least eight seemingly unrelated biases can be produced by the same information-theoretic generative mechanism. The article shows that noisy deviations in the memory-based information processes that convert objective evidence (observations) into subjective estimates (decisions) can produce regressive conservatism, the belief revision (Bayesian conservatism), illusory correlations, illusory superiority (better-than-average effect) and worse-than-average effect, subadditivity effect, exaggerated expectation, overconfidence, and the hard–easy effect.
Individual differences in decision-making biases
People do appear to have stable individual differences in their susceptibility to decision biases such as overconfidence, temporal discounting, and bias blind spot. That said, these stable levels of bias within individuals are possible to change. Participants in experiments who watched training videos and played debiasing games showed medium to large reductions both immediately and up to three months later in the extent to which they exhibited susceptibility to six cognitive biases: anchoring, bias blind spot, confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, projection bias, and representativeness.
There are criticisms against theories of cognitive biases based on the fact that both sides in a debate often claim each other's thoughts to be in human nature and the result of cognitive bias, while claiming their own viewpoints as being the correct way to "overcome" cognitive bias. This is not due simply to debate misconduct but is a more fundamental problem that stems from psychology's making up of multiple opposed cognitive bias theories that can be non-falsifiably used to explain away any viewpoint.
- Baconian method § Idols of the mind (idola mentis)
- Cognitive bias mitigation
- Cognitive bias modification
- Cognitive dissonance
- Cognitive distortion
- Cognitive inertia
- Cognitive psychology
- Cognitive traps for intelligence analysis
- Critical thinking
- Cultural cognition
- Emotional bias
- Evolutionary psychology
- Expectation bias
- False consensus effect
- Implicit stereotype
- Jumping to conclusions
- List of cognitive biases
- Magical thinking
- Presumption of guilt
- Systemic bias
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