Sam Holstein

7 Common Cognitive Biases That Keep You From Being Happy

7 Common Cognitive Biases That Keep You From Being Happy

“If there’s something you really want to believe, that’s what you should question the most.”
― Penn Jillette

The more I learn about the world, the more I come to think that what is really keeping people stuck in their lives — more than economic, societal, financial, or other personal factors — is a lack of training about how to think effectively. In other words, an education

You can get an education in mathematics, linguistics, or computer science, but the most important education you can get is in how to think effectively. How do you define problems? How do you question potential solutions? Do you use data to support your positions, or do you rely on “gut feelings” and “things we all just know”?

Learning to think effectively is a lifelong journey. You can start by learning some common cognitive biases and how to combat them so you don’t make any more logical wrong turns.

#1: The “Us and Them” Bias

One of the most common cognitive biases is the “us and them” bias. This is the bias that leads us to assume that people who are strange to us in some way (different appearance, culture, language, e.t.c.) are dangerous. Psychology Today explains how we developed this bias:

In a statement, the researchers said: “The tendency to be suspicious of people we perceive as strangers or ‘not like us’ probably evolved early in our ancestry, when small groups of humans competed against each other for precious resources like food and water.” Their review sheds light on the neurobiology of “us vs. them” stereotypes and could lead to new behavioral interventions designed to minimize the divisiveness of implicit bias.

— The Unconscious Mind Perpetuates “Us vs. Them” Bias, Psychology Today

It’s found in a dizzying array of circumstances. There’s the obvious tendency people have to ostracize others based on race, culture, national creed, religion, or other demographic factors. That doesn’t need to be explained.

But the “us and them” bias can also affect our personal lives. Ever met a man who blames women for his own dating failures? That’s a great example of “us and them.” Women do it too when they gather at social events and complain about their husbands’ shortcomings.

We also tend to make “them” into one person.

The reality is that the world is not so binary. There are all different kinds of people, for instance, people who are the same as us and people who are similar and people who are different, and people who are incomprehensibly different. Further, we all have more in common than we have differences.

If anything, the truth is that most large groups are distributed into bell curves or straight lines.

If you sense within yourself the urge to label a group you are in and a group someone else is in, examine that urge. How might you and the person before you be similar? In what ways do your differences make no difference?

#2: The “Good and Evil” Bias

It’s not easy to go from seeing people in an “us and them” way to “good and bad” sort of way. Many people, depending on their beliefs, see “poor people” as good and “rich people” as bad, or they see “believers” as good and “sinners” as bad. Of course, you are only ever one or the other.

This cognitive bias doesn’t acknowledge the inherent complexity in the real world. It doesn’t acknowledge that most societal or global outcomes are the result of broken societal processes, not any individual or small group of evildoers.

In his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling uses the example of soaring prices for basic medications in developing parts of the world.

The short explanation goes like this: Basic drugs like antibiotics and stuff are extremely expensive in developing areas of the world because pharmaceutical companies have not focused on innovating cheaper ways to produce old drugs, they are focused on developing new drugs for rich markets.

We want to cry “The horror! The greed of the rich!” But when you look at the individual decisions of everyone involved in this outcome, each person was making a reasonable choice. It’s reasonable for pharmaceutical companies to focus their research in countries whose governments can afford to sponsor them (else how would they have the funds to research?) It makes sense for rich people to buy their new drugs (because what are they going to do, not buy medicine?) It makes sense for rich companies to sponsor the pharmaceutical companies so they can go on providing vital services like vaccination (you see where I’m going with this).

We start getting along in the world a lot better when we realize that there is very rarely a bad guy. There are just a lot of people, most of whom are trying their best to get along in a difficult world. We’re more likely to find workable solutions to our problems if we stop trying to identify a “bad guy” and focus our efforts on improvising a solution.

Understanding this bias can help you at work, especially if you work on a startup or side hustle. Instead of seeing “your boss” or “corporate” as “the bad guy,” you can work with the people who create choke points in your work life and come up with solutions that solve your problem without causing more problems elsewhere. You can invent new processes that solve problems and make everyone’s lives better.

If you sense within yourself the urge to start saying things like “If it weren’t for [the bad guy], [good thing] would happen,” ask yourself who you are setting up to be the bad guy. How might their actions be defensible? What pressures are they facing that create this situation?

#3: The Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic. When we are setting plans or making estimates about something, we interpret newer information from the reference point of our anchor, instead of seeing it objectively. This can skew our judgment, and prevent us from updating our plans or predictions as much as we should.

 The Decision Lab

The most well-known example of the anchoring bias in action is when you’re negotiating prices. Thanks to the anchoring bias, the first price said out loud — by either the buyer or the seller — creates an illusion that this price is a reasonable price. That’s why cars, houses, and other for-sale items are listed for more than what the seller would like to get — the very act of you seeing their list price gives you an impression of value.

Source: The Decision Lab

The anchoring bias does more than lead you to overspend on new cars, though. It affects every area of your life.

When research psychologists analyze this tendency in the lab, they also sometimes call it psychological priming.

Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention. For example, the word NURSE is recognized more quickly following the word DOCTOR than following the word BREAD. Priming can be perceptual, associative, repetitive, positive, negative, affective, semantic, or conceptual.

The best way to combat the anchoring bias is to reframe whatever you’re looking at in terms of absolute facts about the situation. Both mugs cost $300. This house is $200,000 and your budget is $175,000. Your spouse is not acting any differently than they do any other day, you are the one who had an unusual day. You came in to see the doctor about your shoulder pain, not your body fat percentage or your fashion choices for the day.

If you sense within yourself the urge to make a purchasing decision you would never have a week ago, or you sense yourself rapidly forming a new and radical conclusion about politics, economics, or the behavior of your spouse, ask yourself what new anchor has been dropped in your life. Is someone you know getting a divorce and talking about it all the time? Are the dealerships running a new sale? Re-anchor your cognition to the facts of the situation, not whatever new thing is on your mind.

#4: The Urgency Bias

The urgency bias is the tendency for people to look at decisions in terms of “now or never.” They want to buy new headphones now, so they start researching all the options and make a decision within a week. They want to lose weight now, so they start going to the gym a bazillion times a day. They want to solve racism now, so they start protesting in the street for weeks on end.

The reality is that positive change rarely comes rapidly. It takes time to think about large purchases and make one that suits your needs at the right price. Rushing just ensures you’ll waste money or buy the wrong thing. It takes time to lose weight, and rushing ensures you’ll hurt yourself. It takes time to trigger societal change, and rushing ensures you’ll galvanize your opposition and exhaust yourself before the fight is even half over.

Corporations, nonprofits, and all kinds of organizations prey on the urgency bias.

Generally speaking, if you ever feel like something is urgent, it probably isn’t. Aside from childbirth and health complications, very little is so urgent that you need to run around like a chicken with its head cut off.

If you sense within yourself the urge to start panicking and treating something as critical or urgent, ask yourself what would happen if you waited an hour, a day, a week, a month. Stick to the facts. Get a statistic, if you can. If the answer is “probably nothing, actually,” or “I would have to pay 20% more for that thing,” or “There would be a 2% increase in costs for the next quarter,” then it’s not truly urgent.

#5: The Actor-Observer Bias

Actor–observer asymmetry (also actor–observer bias) is the bias one makes when forming attributions about the behavior of others or themselves depending on whether they are an actor or an observer in a situation. When people judge their own behavior, they are more likely to attribute their actions to the particular situation than to their personality. However, when an observer is explaining the behavior of another person, they are more likely to attribute this behavior to the actors’ personality rather than to situational factors…

…Because people are better acquainted with the situational factors affecting their own decisions, they are more likely to see their own behavior as affected by the social situation they are in. However, because the situational effects of other people’s behavior are less accessible to the observer, observers see the actor’s behavior as influenced more by the actor’s overall personality.

— Actor-Observer Asymmetry, Wikipedia

In other words, we’re more likely to cut ourselves slack than we are other people. If I’m late to the meeting, it’s because I got stopped in traffic, but if my employee is late to the meeting, it’s because he’s not as hardworking and doesn’t care as much about his job.

It’s not difficult to anticipate the many possible negative effects of this bias.

If you sense within yourself the urge to attribute a negative character flaw to someone — to consider them rude or lazy or incompetent or something else — ask yourself what external factors could be keeping them from performing the way you expect. Is there anything going on at home that would keep them from performing? Also, ask yourself how an outside observer might rate you. Are there any bad habits you continually engage in? What kind of bad things do you think these bad habits say about you? This might shed some light on why others treat you the way they do.

#6: The Single Perspective Bias

The single perspective bias is a bias toward understanding complex phenomena as having been caused by one thing. The repercussions are immense. This leads us to think that we fully understand a topic even after we’ve been given only one side of the matter, or that we only need one kind of expert to solve interdisciplinary problems. Or we confidently give out explanations for topics that go way beyond our professional expertise, convinced our perspective is the right perspective on a matter.

Like the old adage goes, “To a man who has a hammer, everything is a nail.”

Beware of people who rely on one source or one kind of perspective to inform their thinking about global events. Discerning thinkers should be able to describe all the different positions that interested parties have before they begin to offer an opinion.

In the same vein, beware of thinking one side is stupid. If you ever find yourself wondering “How could someone actually think that?” understand there are many perspectives toward an issue and that there are reasons this explanation makes sense to this person.

#7: The “My Choice Was Best” Bias

In scientific literature, this bias is called the Choice Supportive Bias, but that strikes me as a little technical and hard to remember so I’ve renamed it the “my choice was best” bias because this bias is the tendency to believe, well, that your choice was the best choice, of course! Even when later evidence reveals that it was definitely not the best choice.

“For example, if a person chooses option A instead of option B, they are likely to ignore or downplay the faults of option A while amplifying or ascribing new negative faults to option B. Conversely, they are also likely to notice and amplify the advantages of option A and not notice or de-emphasize those of option B.”

— Wikipedia, Choice-supportive bias

“My choice was best” bias wreaks havoc on American Presidential elections. Once someone has made their choice about who to vote for, whether they choose six days before the election or three months before the primaries even start, it becomes a near-impossible task to change their minds.

But it also interrupts your ability to think about choices closer to home. If you make a certain career choice, you lose perspective about whether you did the right thing or whether you should reconsider. If you choose a direction for your business, you are unable to identify when you’ve made the wrong choice and need to pivot.

To combat this bias, approach every situation fresh. Imagine that you are new to the situation — that you are a consultant, a therapist, or some other paid objective professional — and imagine what you would tell yourself to do. Odds are, what “the paid professional” you would tell yourself to do is not what you’re doing.

If you sense within yourself the urge to defend a choice you’ve made — whether that’s a presidential vote or a choice of a college major — ask yourself what the argument against your position is. Why would it be a good idea for you to change your mind? What are you downplaying or overlooking?

Conclusion

In a world with information gushing at the seams, the biggest obstacles to effective decision-making are not a lack of information, but things that stop us from using that information to come to useful conclusions: errors of thought.

It’s impossible to strike irrationality from the heart of the human psyche, of course, but being aware of your errors of thought is the difference between blurting out biased statements and using them to guide your life, and catching biases before they can lead you down a path of bad decision-making.