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How to Identify Cognitive Bias: 12 Examples of Cognitive Bias

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 6 min read

Cognitive biases are inherent in the way we think, and many of them are unconscious. Identifying the biases you experience and purport in your everyday interactions is the first step to understanding how our mental processes work, which can help us make better, more informed decisions.

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What Is Cognitive Bias?

A cognitive bias is a strong, preconceived notion of someone or something, based on information we have, perceive to have, or lack. These preconceptions are mental shortcuts the human brain produces to expedite information processing—to quickly help it make sense of what it is seeing.

The many types of cognitive biases serve as systematic errors in a person’s subjective way of thinking, which originate from that individual’s own perceptions, observations, or points of view. There are different types of bias people experience that influence and affect the way we think and behave, as well as our decision-making process.

How Does Cognitive Bias Impact the Way We Think?

Biases make it difficult for people to exchange accurate information or derive truths. A cognitive bias distorts our critical thinking, leading to possibly perpetuating misconceptions or misinformation that can be damaging to others.

Biases lead us to avoid information that may be unwelcome or uncomfortable, rather than investigating the information that could lead us to a more accurate outcome. Biases can also cause us to see patterns or connections between ideas that aren’t necessarily there.

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12 Examples of Cognitive Bias

There are many common cognitive biases that people exhibit. Some examples of common biases are:

  1. Confirmation bias. This type of bias refers to the tendency to seek out information that supports something you already believe, and is a particularly pernicious subset of cognitive bias—you remember the hits and forget the misses, which is a flaw in human reasoning. People will cue into things that matter to them, and dismiss the things that don’t, often leading to the “ostrich effect,” where a subject buries their head in the sand to avoid information that may disprove their original point.
  2. The Dunning-Kruger Effect. This particular bias refers to how people perceive a concept or event to be simplistic just because their knowledge about it may be simple or lacking—the less you know about something, the less complicated it may appear. However, this form of bias limits curiosity—people don’t feel the need to further explore a concept, because it seems simplistic to them. This bias can also lead people to think they are smarter than they actually are, because they have reduced a complex idea to a simplistic understanding.
  3. In-group bias. This type of bias refers to how people are more likely to support or believe someone within their own social group than an outsider. This bias tends to remove objectivity from any sort of selection or hiring process, as we tend to favor those we personally know and want to help.
  4. Self-serving bias. A self-serving bias is an assumption that good things happen to us when we’ve done all the right things, but bad things happen to us because of circumstances outside our control or things other people purport. This bias results in a tendency to blame outside circumstances for bad situations rather than taking personal responsibility.
  5. Availability bias. Also known as the availability heuristic, this bias refers to the tendency to use the information we can quickly recall when evaluating a topic or idea—even if this information is not the best representation of the topic or idea. Using this mental shortcut, we deem the information we can most easily recall as valid, and ignore alternative solutions or opinions.
  6. Fundamental attribution error. This bias refers to the tendency to attribute someone’s particular behaviors to existing, unfounded stereotypes while attributing our own similar behavior to external factors. For instance, when someone on your team is late to an important meeting, you may assume that they are lazy or lacking motivation without considering internal and external factors like an illness or traffic accident that led to the tardiness. However, when you are running late because of a flat tire, you expect others to attribute the error to the external factor (flat tire) rather than your personal behavior.
  7. Hindsight bias. Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along effect, is when people perceive events to be more predictable after they happen. With this bias, people overestimate their ability to predict an outcome beforehand, even though the information they had at the time would not have led them to the correct outcome. This type of bias happens often in sports and world affairs. Hindsight bias can lead to overconfidence in one’s ability to predict future outcomes.
  8. Anchoring bias. The anchoring bias, also known as focalism or the anchoring effect, pertains to those who rely too heavily on the first piece of information they receive—an “anchoring” fact— and base all subsequent judgments or opinions on this fact.
  9. Optimism bias. This bias refers to how we as humans are more likely to estimate a positive outcome if we are in a good mood.
  10. Pessimism bias. This bias refers to how we as humans are more likely to estimate a negative outcome if we are in a bad mood.
  11. The halo effect. This bias refers to the tendency to allow our impression of a person, company, or business in one domain influence our overall impression of the person or entity. For instance, a consumer who enjoys the performance of a microwave that they bought from a specific brand is more likely to buy other products from that brand because of their positive experience with the microwave.
  12. Status quo bias. The status quo bias refers to the preference to keep things in their current state, while regarding any type of change as a loss. This bias results in the difficulty to process or accept change.

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How to Reduce Cognitive Bias

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Even though cognitive biases are pervasive throughout every system, there are ways to address your bias blind spots:

  1. Be aware. The best way to prevent cognitive bias from influencing the way you think or make decisions is by being aware that they exist in the first place. Critical thinking is the enemy of bias. By knowing there are factors that can alter the way we see, experience, or recall things, we know that there are additional steps we must take when forming a judgment or opinion about something.
  2. Challenge your own beliefs. Once you’re aware that your own thinking is heavily biased, continuously challenge the things you believe is a good way to begin the debiasing process—especially when receiving new information. This can help you expand your pool of knowledge, giving you a greater understanding of the subject matter.
  3. Try a blind approach. Especially in the case of observer bias, researchers conduct blind studies to reduce the amount of bias in scientific studies or focus groups. By limiting the amount of influential information a person or group of people receive, they can make less affected decisions.

What Is the Difference Between Logical Fallacy and Cognitive Bias?

Cognitive biases are often confused with logical fallacies. A cognitive bias refers to how our internal thinking patterns affect how we understand and process information. A logical fallacy refers to an error in reasoning that weakens or invalidates an argument. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in a person’s subjective way of thinking, while logical fallacies are about the errors in a logical argument.

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