We would like to think that we are rational beings, who consciously plan and take control of our lives by making decisions that are predicated on thoughtful and rational choices. But are we, really?
A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when we are processing and interpreting information in the world around us which affects the decision and judgements that we make.
We all have biases to varying degrees. We make judgements about people and opportunities based on our own filters developed from our childhood experiences, social and cultural norms, the availability of information, and the environment we are in. As our brain can only devote attention to a limited number of stimuli, we are selective in what we pay attention to in our day-to-day lives.
When we plan or make decisions, we usually are not aware of how deeply our moods and feelings affect our thinking process. We are always feeling a certain emotion and therefore they are always subtly infecting our thinking. These biases, by distorting reality, can lead us to mistakes and ineffective decisions that affect our lives. However, by knowing what they are and how to spot them, we can avoid them and make better choices – whether we are dealing with problems at work and/or at home.
1. Confirmation Bias
“They’re at it again. I knew it.” “What rubbish are they saying now?”
It is the tendency to go in search of evidence that supports our existing theories, beliefs, and convictions; and filter out any new information that disconfirms our existing views. No one likes to learn that we’ve made a poor decision. The more strongly held the beliefs, the more we tend to ignore information that challenges the beliefs. It is understandable why it is difficult to look at the disconfirming evidence because it means looking for reasons you might be wrong, and we usually don’t like to be wrong.
But it’s essential if you want to improve your understanding of how things work. It is helpful to write down your beliefs – whether it’s about yourself, relationships, healthcare, diet, or career strategies and set out to be curious to find disconfirming evidence no matter how uncomfortable you feel. Reality sometimes lies on the side that you won’t listen to, and it’s really okay to change your mind.
2. Mind Reading
“My partner is very quiet today, he must be upset with me.”
When we make assumptions about what others are thinking and feeling without much to go on. We know that certain nonverbal behaviours and verbal reactions can give us clues about what someone is thinking, however, when used too much, or without much evidence to go on, mind reading can be problematic and cause damage to our mood and relationships because we never really know what another person is thinking unless they tell us. If you want to find out, just ask.
On the other hand, it’s equally important to not expect others to read your mind and have a perfect understanding of what you need and want. It’s our responsibility to communicate our objectives, priorities, preferences, and boundaries. In such a way, we make it easier for others to interact with us in a productive and beneficial way.
“I’ve made a mistake. I’m going to lose my job.”
When our mind jumps to the worst possible scenario and offers us a prediction of what might happen when faced with situations that are upsetting and filled with uncertainty. As you can imagine, this can easily lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, which is unhelpful. For the most part, that prediction rarely comes true. Even if it did, we usually underestimate our ability to respond. Things aren’t always as bad as it seems. And it’s healthy to look at mistakes and setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow.
“My son hasn’t failed his exam; I’ve only got myself to blame. It’s all my fault.” “It’s your fault”
When you take things personally and blame yourself even though you had little or nothing to do with the outcome. It’s good to acknowledge things that you don’t do well, own them and ask for help if necessary. But dwelling in self-blame only prolongs the negativity. If you catch yourself doing this, take a step back and ask yourself if you would say the same to your friend. If you wouldn’t, then don’t say it to yourself. Use the same standard.
This can also involve blaming someone else for something for which they have no responsibility. It may be easy to blame others when things go wrong, as we don’t have to be held accountable. However, when we blame someone, we’re giving too much power away because we’re placing our feelings on someone else. People in our lives may behave in ways that trigger uncomfortable reactions in us, but it is our responsibility to learn to choose our thoughts, words, and actions.
5. Emotional Reasoning
“My heart is beating very fast, I am going to faint.”
When we interpret our feelings as proof rather than drawing conclusions based on facts. It can be explained as “I feel it so it must be true.” Whilst it’s important to listen, validate, and express our emotions, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence. Allow yourself to feel your emotions but don’t let them consume you. Be mindful of them without judgement, but challenge the validity of what you’re feeling and identify whether it is based on emotions or facts.
6. Should Statement
“I should know how to do this…”
When we focus on how things should be based on the unrealistic expectations, we have for ourselves or others. Sometimes we use these statements as an attempt to motivate ourselves but most of the time, it leads to self-criticism, guilt, and shame. The problem with the word ‘should’, in a sense, is saying that we are wrong, or we were wrong, or we are going to be wrong. It doesn’t provide freedom of choice and the grace for mistakes. It’s easy to berate ourselves or criticise ourselves for not meeting the ‘standards’. Instead of saying “I should”, say “If I really want to, I could…”.
7. Hindsight Bias
“I knew this is going to happen.”
This can be described as the ‘I knew it all along’ phenomenon when we believe that an event is more predictable after it becomes known than it was before it became known. In a way, we experience this bias because our brains are constantly trying to make sense of everything around us. We’re constantly connecting causes and effects; using our own interpretations to fill in the blanks and we tend to oversimplify those explanations. We see unpredictable events as obvious and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “I’m a good predictor”. Then it’s easy to blame yourself for things that “you should have known”. If you knew what you know now, you wouldn’t have done what you did.