Science & Technology

Cognitive Bias

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Lesson time 17:14 min

If you are human, then you are susceptible to cognitive bias. Neil defines some of the most common cognitive biases and reveals how our need to feel special may be getting in the way of our search for objective truths.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Teaches Scientific Thinking and Communication
Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson teaches you how to find objective truths and shares his tools for communicating what you discover.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - It's not our fault that we're human. Being human, we all have susceptibility to a certain category of bias, and it's called cognitive bias. These are things you think are true but are not and can be demonstrated to not be true. You're staring at it bare faced. And you say, I swear to you this is how it is. And it's not. There are all manner of cognitive biases. There are some that are particularly insidious if you're trying to understand what is objectively true. One of the cognitive biases is that you want to feel special. I've spoken to people who say, I always find money in the street. And I say, OK. You know what you don't find? The money that you missed. How do you know that you didn't miss vastly more money than the money that you actually spotted? In fact, you could be failing at this exercise. But that's not how the brain thinks about it. You're special today because you found $5 in the street. You missed the $10 under the rock one block earlier. The urge to feel special knows no bounds. If there's ever a moment where something happens around you and you want to think it's special, just pause. Chances are it's not. And this comes about because the human brain is not wired to think about probability and statistics. It's just not. What's wrong with feeling special? I guess, in principle, nothing. But it's not an accurate understanding of the world. And it's your choice. Do you want to live in a delusion of what you think is true or do you want to live in the reality of what is true? Here's a good example. Line up 1,000 people. Give them a coin to flip. They flip the coin. About half will get heads. About half will get tails. If they get tails, tell them to sit down. How many are left? 500. Flip a coin. Tails sit down. 250. Flip a coin. Tails sit down. 125. Flip a coin. Tails sit down. We're down to 60. Sit down. We're down to 30. We're down to 15. We're down to eight, four, two, one. When you do this experiment, there's this one person at the end that flipped heads 10 consecutive times. Now what happens? The press rushes to that person and says, how do you feel about this win? And here's a common response. I sort of felt that head's energy about halfway through. And I saw the heads of things this morning. And I knew I was going to win. Oh, this is wonderful. And yeah, I knew. I felt today was going to be special. Very common response. No, not for this experiment, for people who win the lottery or something. Right. Did the press go to anyone else in that line and ask them how they felt? No. So here's the bias. The bias is you think this person won, and that person thinks that person won, because of some sort of spiritual heads energy permeating their lives that day, when any time you do this experiment somebody is going to flip heads 10 times in a row. That's the nature of this experiment. The person who flips heads thinks that they're special when it's just a statistical fact...

Think like a scientist

With a hit talk show and bestselling books, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most popular figures in modern science. Now the influential astrophysicist teaches you how his mind works and how he connects with audiences. Learn to think like a skeptic, open your own mind through scientific literacy, distill data, and navigate bias to discover objective truths—and deliver your ideas in ways that engage, excite, and inspire.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It is nice to better understand his mindset and I appreciate that it like my own. Thank You !

I am very grateful to Neil for letting us know "how he ticks" and for teaching his audience how to think for themselves. But more than that, it is crucial to teach us how to communicate our thoughts with others. Thank you, Neil!

My curiosity and interest in sciences have always had to take a back seat to my livelihood, never having the education or resources to pursue a profession in the field. Now, near retirement, I can explore subjects without pressure - to learn for the joy of it.

Sometimes we need to be reminded about what we know and how to objectively deduce what's being presented to us in this world. Thanks for the sanity check!


Randi S.

I find it interesting that you are suppose to question everything all the time but somehow not question things sometimes. Seems completely understandable to me to question the sources of the information that is being given to you. In one moment your not suppose to take authority as truth but then in the end your not suppose to question NASA, whom this guy is skeptical of, because they are bias contributor. As a teacher I would have challenge him to find some third party's pictures to validate the NASA's data. After all science isn't based off of one truth but many truths. That being said it is pointless to argue with some people.


During my collegiate career, I experience multiple people trying to get other to believe what they believe.


I have experienced some of these lessons personally, having worked with a couple flat-Earthers.

A fellow student

I've seen photos of the nothern lights where people see wolves barking. Ink blot tests prove that people see what they want to!

A fellow student

I've taken survey of Mathematics and know that nothing is certain even if your confident it is! Chance is not determined! It is simply "Chance"!

Sel B.

Errr - It is not given fact that there will be an outcome in the head / tails experiment as it is entirely possible that all the remaining participants can flip tails on any round. In fact it becomes increasingly likely as you progress through each round.

Eric P.

"You almost have to train yourself away from the passions of people you know to then recognize the significance and value of the cold statistics that actually contain access of the truth you seek!" -NDT

Piotr Christian B.

Love the lecture and loved the experiment explaining the Illusory superiority bias (the flip coin experiment). I also enjoyed other examples as cognitive biases are my favourite area in the field of cognitive psychology. As for the horoscope experiment, I'd love to add that apart from Self-selection bias it might be also additionally explained by the Forer (or Barnum effect). As for the books I'd like to recommend to my fellow students: 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Kahneman, 'Mindware' by Richard Nisbett and 'Mistakes were made (but not by me)' by Tarvis and Aronson. Enjoy!

Julia D.

Loved the lecture. Studied bias a ton for my undergrad and grad degree (history and education). He is right on track with everything and provides the info in such an engaging way. Just a bit disappointed that for someone who says he wants to know about things he doesn't believe in to think astrology is just horoscopes... everyone actually into astrology knows those are bs and fake especially done by major media outlets.

A fellow student

Seriously never felt something hit so hard. I am always watching or reading about things that I don't believe in or do not agree with. I just finished a whole series on Scientology and before that was watching some Alien stuff on Gaia. My husband doesn't understand but I just find it fascinating to see what other people think.