8 mins | 20 Jan, 2021

Cognitive Bias - How our mind deceives us

Evolution has taught the brain many tricks we humans use to help us get along in the world and generally speed up our thought processes. Heuristics provide us with mental shortcuts that help us make quick decisions. Depending on how detailed a description you’re interested in, Cognitive Bias sits in the same camp as Heuristics but… has some distinctly different characteristics, most of which tend to be negative…

What are cognitive bias's?

So, the human brain works hard, really hard! It’s always on. It also works fast. It has to in order to keep up with the constant influx of data. The fastest super-computer on earth really has nothing on the human brain. To keep thoughts moving forward, its developed a number of tricks that help short cut all that processing, one of those being Cognitive Bias.

The brain wants to jump to conclusions. it wants to finish the current thought and move onto the next as quickly as possible. Where heuristics tend to help us with this (resulting is a positive leap), Cognitive Biases often hinder (although we may not realise that at the time).

A Cognitive Bias is an error in our thinking that leads us to a wrong (or at least less right) conclusion. They can often be rooted in our personality and effect our perception of the facts. Ie - if the data says one thing, a cognitive bias may well influence our perception to see it as another. This could be in a subtle barely perceptible way or it could have a much bigger effect, to the point where we will confidently proclaim that the data is wrong.

Examples of Cognitive Bias

To illustrate, here are some examples of some common cognitive biases we are all susceptible to.

Confirmation Bias - “The tendency to search for and use information that specifically aligns with our preconceptions”.

We commonly search for information (especially in the age of Google) using terms that already align to our ideas. If you have certain leanings toward a political figure for instance, you may unconsciously use language in your search terms that will sway the results to meet the suspicions you already hold:

Imagine how looking for the same information using the following 2 questions might return different results:

  • How honest is the President in his speeches?
  • How often does the President lie in his speeches?

If you are of the persuasion that the President is a liar and you generally have negative feelings toward him, you are likely to take more notice of evidence you find that supports this than contradicts it. Further to that, once you have reviewed this evidence, you will likely use this to confirm your initial suspicions. Feeling good about yourself that you were right all along, you would then have no need to look further (even though there could be mountains of evidence pointing the other way that shows the President is actually a pretty upstanding and honest guy).

Social-media, is a breeding ground for confirmation bias. Within your social bubble, you will likely be surrounded by other people with similar ideas of the world than you. As they post and comment on issues that align with yours, your confirmation bias anttena is constantly being pinged with fresh ‘evidence’.

Loss Aversion - “The perceived loss of an item is greater than the perceived gain of acquiring it.”

We place higher value on the things we own than those we are looking to acquire. Its a sub-conscious process that we just can’t help ourselves in doing.

For instance, if you own a car and want to sell it. You will likely place a higher value on it than the person who wants to buy it from you. It’s not just a sales tactic either, you will really think it's worth more. Why? Because you have fond memories of driving it, you have the experience of owning it. To you, its more than a car. It's a means to travel and experience the world around you, which you have done many times, in that car, in your car. That means something, deep down in your subconscious.

Loss aversion doesn't just effect items we have a sentimental attachment too though. Its a bias that's been studied in labs many times (typically using cookies). Simple tests show that if given 5 cookies, a child will show a higher state of reaction to having 3 taken away, than if they were just given 2 in the first place. Even though, the end result is the same.

In short, we humans hate losing things.

The insurance industry thrives on loss aversion. A lot of resources go into calculating the level of premiums people will be prepared to pay to avoid the loss of something we value. Its an example of an industry that's built around a basic human psychological condition.

Curse of knowledge - “The difficulty well informed people on a certain subject have in thinking about it from the perspective of less informed people.”

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about what you do and been surprised when they don’t comprehend even the basics? This is the curse of knowledge. When you work in a specific field, you tend to live and breathe it. Its a big part of your day, every day, and you build up a wealth of knowledge in that field. So much so, that the majority of stuff you know about it, becomes second nature. From your perspective it may even slip into the category of general knowledge… but this is a bias on your part.

The difficulty comes when explaining certain concepts and not taking into account that the person you’re explaining it to may not have the background information you possess on the subject. The classic example of this bias is set in the classroom. A teacher suffering from The Curse of Knowledge, would attempt to explain a complex issue, assuming their students already understand the basics enough to comprehend the whole picture. The assumption is very real too. It's not simply a case of the teacher not explaining things fully. They really feel like the students have already got this, it might not cross their mind to check.

Categorising cognitive bias

There are a huge number of cognitive biases recognised. Check out the growing list here on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases. More are discovered all the time (have you heard of the Ikea effect?). People have attempted to categorise them in different ways. Because they effect pretty much all areas of our thinking, and the list is ever growing, its hard to define a standard category structure.

Someone who has done a pretty good job of it though is Buster Benson, with his Cognitive Bias cheat sheet, found here: https://medium.com/better-humans/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18

He puts them into 4 broad categories:

  • Too much information - We notice things that are primed in our memories or repeated often. We notice when something has changed. We’re drawn to details that confirm our own beliefs and we notice flaws in others more easily than in ourselves.
  • Not enough meaning - We find stories and patterns easily (even in sparse data). We fill in gaps in information, generalise and stereotype. We simplify, we make assumptions on what people are thinking and about past & future events. We apply positive feelings to things we are fond of and negative to those we are not.
  • Need to act fast - We favour immediate, relatable information. We’re more motivated toward current investments. We look to preserve status and autonomy. We prefer options that are simple over those that are complex or ambiguous.
  • What should we remember? - We edit and reinforce memories. We discard specifics to form generalities. We reduce information down to key elements. We store memories differently depending on how we experienced them.

How Cognitive bias is used in web design

Whether knowing or unknowingly, marketeers, advertisers and designers use all sorts of techniques that take advantage of cognitive bias to manipulate you. Purchasing products, signing up to services or giving up personal data are all things we do under the illusion of free will. By asking you to do these things in a certain way though, framing or presenting the choice to you carefully, you may be nudged more toward a state where you are likely to complete the action.

This nudging happens a lot.

Understanding the basics behind some common biases can help you spot when you are being manipulated. Here are a few more examples:

The Decoy Effect - Signing up to a service, nearly always has 3 options, right? The basic low cost one, the middle ground ‘most popular’ option, and the expensive ‘premium’ or ‘enterprise’ option. The 3rd is nearly always a decoy. Its there to set a price that makes the middle option seem more reasonable. Without it, the number 2 would look like the expensive option and you’d be more likely to go with the basic one.

Authority Bias - We respect people who have achieved high rank or exceptional knowledge in their field. Their opinion holds more weight with us than less qualified individuals. Companies often use celebrities or people with authority to endorse products because they know it will effect your purchase decision favourably. This is used often within social proof elements of a website when reinforcing a products value.

Mere Exposure effect - We tend to express positive feelings towards things just by being exposed to them. This is why brands spend billions every year just to get their logos in front of as many people as possible as often as possible. Just seeing the Coca Cola logo, everywhere… your entire life… makes you reach for it over a competitor in the shop, deep down in a subtle sub-conscious way. Don’t think it effects you? Doesn't matter, they know it does.

There are countless other ways cognitive bias is used to manipulate your decisions on a daily basis. I encourage you to learn a few and start looking out for them, they’re everywhere.

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