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.

Feeling refreshed, pulling me back to thought process I have missed due to rat-race

This MasterClass gave me a broader perspective on things. I loved how science can be part of a story that can have an impact on people.

I like all Neils thoughts. So much to think about

Neil's grasp on critical thinking is superb. It really makes you want to evaluate the world around you and move differently.


Rita K.

For more than a decade, I worked in a high-risk area of my hospital. After exposure like this, most of my co-workers thought - and were validated by our superiors - that high-risk was the norm. Reading statistics, listening to others in this atmosphere, is difficult, and can be daunting. It took courage to say (at least to myself), this is NOT the norm. The rest of the world is not this abnormal. Eventually, I had to leave.

A fellow student

I am completely amazed. Thank you Neil for sharing your thoughts about how we all should be thinking and see the world.

Gervis M.

I am truly digging this.. What about consistent misleading and incorrect information. Example like a person who has been documented to provide that information. Am I to trust this person or believe the data they provide?

Ellen C.

I'm glad there's a section on cognitive bias. I with this was a subject that was universally taught.

A fellow student

Great content! A little add: Muslims mostly see "Allah" (in arab alphabet) on food or any other stuff.

Michele B.

1. Everyone wants to be the chosen one. There are about 7.8 billion people on earth. There are going to be a lot of disappointed people. 2. The Warshak test tells us more about us than what we are looking at. 3. People can be complex and are not square pegs that fit into square holes. We are more complex than that.

A fellow student

At 12:33 there about, found something I agree with. Read things on topics that I don't believe so that I can see what they are talking about, much like as to why I'm listening to this content.

Bobby C.

I'm rewatching this because the special thesis was the only thing he talked about that I felt totally skeptical about. I think it comes down to a difference in definition. He seems to frame special as a "chosen one" sort of mentality, but I've always seen special as "earned profundity". Special is a descriptor I use to describe someone like Neil or many of the other teachers here because they have earned a certain profoundness within the context of humanity (which is counter to the cosmic perspective in a way I guess)


I'm beginning to think that belief in God is a type of confirmation bias. Humans want to think we're special, so we create this entity that believes that we're better than everything... the earth, animals, the universe and even angels!

Bernardo F.

This subject is really interesting. Last year I read the book "Thinking fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman, who is a psycologist and also won a Nobel Prize in Economics. When I first heard about it I was like "oh, c'mon, how can a psycologist win that!?" I couldn't have been more wrong, the way he describes the results of his experiments, and also, how he challenges you through the book in order to make you realize that you have them, and you're doing them in that precise moment is simply amazing. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about this topic.