The human mind is wonderful, but it is not perfect. Cognitive biases, for instance, are genuine limitations in our thinking of which we are not consciously aware. Influencing the decisions we make, the views we uphold, or the conclusions we reach, often in a detrimental way, cognitive biases cannot be altogether eliminated, but they can be kept in check through the power of mindfulness.
There are hundreds of cognitive biases, but some have a more significant impact on our lives than others. The following seven cognitive biases are some of the most problematic. Understanding them can help us increase our success in everyday life as well as our self-awareness.
The Choice-Supportive Bias
When we make a choice, we tend to feel good about it and to downplay the benefits our other option(s) could have offered us ““ psychologists call this the choice-supportive bias. It affects our ability to question our choices and recognize when we’ve made poor choices. It can make us stubbornly persistent in defending our choices, even if they have not been as inspired as we like to believe.
When we hesitate between two careers, two cities, or two people, and in the end we choose one over the other, we may then go on telling ourselves and others all our life that we’ve made the right choice, even if things don’t turn out as we’d hoped they would. Knowing that there is such a thing as a choice-supportive bias can be enough for us to reconsider a past choice before it is too late. We can make a new choice: we can choose to transform our life.
The Information Bias
We have a natural tendency to seek more information than we need. This cognitive bias can be especially dangerous in our times, when the easy availability of information on the Internet can lead to information overload. Because of the information bias, for instance, we may be tempted to read as many self-help books and articles as possible about a particular personal problem we are facing, thinking that the more information we have, the more prepared we will be to deal with it.
But this is not always true. Our predictions, as well as our actions, can be more accurate and more decisive when they are based on less information. In other words, it may be more beneficial for us, as well as for those around us, if we actually act based on the self-help materials we already have rather than hear the same advice repeated over and over again in a different form. The urge to consume information can itself be a way to delay taking decisive, life-changing action.
The Survivorship Bias
In our choice of a job or career, we may be inspired by one individual who has succeeded in that field against all the odds, and whose situation before he or she was successful mirrors our present situation. However, we must be wary of the survivorship bias, which is essentially the error of focusing on surviving examples, in our case the successful individual, while failing to consider other examples that are not visible, i.e. all those individuals who failed.
It doesn’t have to be a discouraging bias, though, only a sobering one ““ before making up our minds about something important, we should consider not only the few successful examples that get all the publicity, but also the many obscure and forgotten failures.
The Myside Bias (or Confirmation Bias)
In simple terms, the confirmation bias is the unconscious act of favoring and interpreting information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs while downplaying alternatives. We have a natural tendency to agree with those who agree with us or read books that confirm ideas and beliefs we already have. At the same time, we can dislike people who hold different views than us, or books or websites that challenge our existing views.
This bias is such a big part of who we are that it is bound to influence almost all areas of our life. Nevertheless, we can make the conscious effort to be more open to ideas and beliefs that contradict our own, and more patient with the people who express them. We don’t have to agree with them, but if we can refrain from contradicting them, we can forge better human relationships, as well as expand our mind with different perspectives.
The Post-Purchase Rationalization Bias
We sometimes buy things we don’t really need, and yet we rationalize our purchase, telling ourselves and whoever questions us about it that it was an inspired decision. This is the post-purchase rationalization bias in action. Without our realizing it, it can sabotage our plans and dreams by having us accept our purchase decisions unconditionally and, by doing so, spend the money we work hard for instead of using it to help support our passions and dreams.
It applies not only to personal buying decisions but also to business decisions ““ because of this bias we may validate services or products we buy for our company or business or that we think may help advance our career, when in fact they don’t. One way to minimize the occurrence of this bias in our life is not to buy products or services we don’t absolutely need.
The Negativity Bias
Bad news and unpleasant incidents in general always have a strong grip on us. It’s because our selective attention naturally focuses on the bad news rather than on the good, often because the consequences of the former are more serious and long-lasting. While this cognitive bias may have helped our species evolve, today, when bad news makes all the headlines, it can negatively affect our attitude to life.
When that bad news is close to home, such as when our partner tells us something we don’t want to hear, it can hit us especially hard, making us pay little attention any good news that’s also given us. This bias can sow much negativity in our mind, which then reflects in our attitude toward society and other people. We must stay positive.
Observational Selection Bias
When we are unemployed and looking for a job, we tend to notice people who work everywhere, and we envy them. Similarly, when we find ourselves single after a relationship, we tend to see couples everywhere and feel lonely and sad. It may seem natural, but it can be explained even better by the observational selection bias, which makes us notice things we didn’t pay that much attention to before and which we may mistakenly assume occur more frequently now than they used to.
This bias may give rise to the false perception that so many other people are better off than us, making us suffer even more. But that is not true ““ our mind only focuses on what we lack, constantly reminding us of it.
Recognizing and understanding these cognitive biases means more than reading about them. You have to make a conscious effort to understand them when they kick into action. It takes some effort, but it will make you more successful and more aware ““ a better person all-round.