Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on December 8, 2020

How Cognitive Bias Influences Our Decision Making

How Cognitive Bias Influences Our Decision Making

Cognitive biases are dangerous judgment errors that can devastate our health and wellbeing, our relationships, careers and businesses, and other areas of our lives.

To protect yourself against these mental blind spots, you need to know what they are, where they come from, and what you can do about them. That’s what this article is about.

Cognitive Biases on the Road

For an example of cognitive bias, imagine you are driving on autopilot, as we all do much of the time.

Let’s be clear, it’s a good idea to let your automatic response be in the driver’s seat when you are doing tasks that don’t require your full focus and attention. In ordinary driving situations – without inclement weather or start-and-stop traffic – you don’t need to use up your mental resources by turning your full focus on driving.

Now imagine that, as you are driving, the car in front of you unexpectedly cuts you off!

What do you do?

Well, you have to slam on your brakes to avoid a crash. Maybe you flash your lights or honk your horn. You feel scared and angry.

Your sympathetic nervous system activates, shooting cortisol throughout your body. Your heart beats faster, your palms start to sweat, a wave of heat goes through your body. [1]

What’s your gut feeling about the other driver? Probably your first impression is that the driver is rude and obnoxious.

Now imagine a different situation. You’re driving on autopilot, minding your own business, and you suddenly realize you need to turn right at the next intersection. You quickly switch lanes and suddenly hear someone behind you honking their horn.

Advertising

You now realize that there was someone in your blind spot but you forgot to check it in the rush to switch lanes, so you cut them off pretty badly.

Do you think that you are a rude driver? The vast majority of us would not. After all, we did not deliberately cut off the other driver; we just failed to see their car.

Let’s imagine another situation: your friend hurt herself and you’re rushing her to the emergency room. You’re driving aggressively and cutting in front of other cars.

Are you a rude driver? You’d probably say you are not; you’re merely doing the right thing for this situation.

Misattributing Blame Due to Cognitive Biases

Why do we give ourselves a pass while assigning an obnoxious status to other people? Why do our guts always make ourselves the good guys and other people the bad guys?

There is clearly a disconnect between our gut reactions and reality. This pattern is not a coincidence

Our immediate gut reaction attributes the behavior of other people to their personality and not to the situation in which the behavior occurs. The scientific name for this type of cognitive bias is the fundamental attribution error.[2]

This judgment error results in the following: if we see someone behaving rudely, we immediately and intuitively feel that this person is rude. We don’t stop to consider whether an unusual situation may cause the individual to act that way.

With the example of the driver, maybe the person who cut you off did not see you. Maybe they were driving their friend to the emergency room. But that’s not what our gut reaction tells us.

On the other hand, we attribute our own behavior to the situation, and not our personality. Much of the time we believe that we have valid and fully justifiable explanations for our actions.

Advertising

Are Cognitive Biases Really So Bad?

Don’t believe that such negative snap judgments about others can be harmful?

It may not seem very important whether you think wrongly that other drivers are jerks. Sorry to disappoint you, but this mental pattern posed a grave threat to your relationships.

As an example, what would you think of a potential business colleague if you saw her yelling at someone on her smartphone?

ou would probably have a negative reaction toward her and may not be likely to do business with her. Well, what if you found out she was yelling because she had her father on the other line who just misplaced his hearing aid and she was making plans to come to his house to help him look for it?

There can be many innocent explanations for someone yelling on the phone, but we are tempted to assume the worst.

In a related example, I was coaching a CEO of a company that had staff who worked from home due to COVID-19.

He told me about a recent incident with an employee who was having a heated Skype discussion over a conflict with an HR manager. The Skype call disconnected and the HR manager told the CEO the employee hung up on her. The CEO fired the employee on the spot.

Later, he learned that the employee thought the HR manager hung up on her. The call simply disconnected. Unfortunately, it was too late to take back the termination, even though the CEO regretted his heated decision.

This unfair firing situation really demoralized the rest of the staff, resulting in a growing disconnect between the CEO and other staff. It eventually contributed to the CEO leaving the organization.

Why Do We Suffer Cognitive Biases?

Intuitively, our mind feels like a cohesive whole. We perceive ourselves as intentional and rational thinkers. Yet cognitive science research shows that in reality, the intentional part of our mind is like a little rider on top of a huge elephant of emotions and intuitions.[3]

Advertising

Roughly speaking, we have two thinking systems, which neuroscientists call System 1 and 2. But it’s easier to think of them as the “autopilot system” and “intentional system.”

The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. Its cognitive processes take place mainly in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that developed early in our evolution.

This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and reacts instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations, like saber-toothed tigers through the freeze, fight, or flight stress response.

While helping our survival in the past, the fight-or-flight response is not a great fit for modern life. We have many small stresses that are not life-threatening, but the autopilot system treats them as tigers, producing an unnecessarily stressful everyday life experience that undermines our mental and physical wellbeing.

Moreover, while the snap judgments resulting from intuitions and emotions usually feel “true” because they are fast and powerful, they sometimes lead us wrongly in systemic and predictable ways.

The intentional system reflects our rational thinking and centers around the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that evolved more recently.

This thinking system helps us handle more complex mental activities, such as managing individual and group relationships, logical reasoning, probabilistic thinking, and learning new information and patterns of thinking and behavior. It can also lead to occasional decision-making errors, but it’s right much more often than the autopilot system.[4]

Train Your Intentional System to Address Cognitive Biases

While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system takes deliberate effort to turn on and is mentally tiring.

Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where we are prone to making systematic decision-making errors. Scholars use the term “cognitive biases” to refer to these errors.

The autopilot system is like an elephant. It’s by far the more powerful and predominant of the two systems. Our emotions can often overwhelm our rational thinking.

Advertising

Moreover, our intuitions and habits determine the large majority of our life, which we spend in autopilot mode. And that’s not a bad thing at all – it would be mentally exhausting to think intentionally about our every action and decision.

The intentional system is like the elephant rider. It can guide the elephant deliberately to go in a direction that matches our actual goals.

Certainly, the elephant part of the brain is huge and unwieldy, slow to turn and change, and stampedes at threats. But we can train the elephant. Your rider can be an elephant whisperer.

Over time, you can use the intentional system to change your automatic thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns, and become much better at making the best decisions.

That’s why you should never go with your gut, and instead check with your head on any decision you don’t want to get wrong.[5]

Conclusion

Let’s go back to the fundamental attribution error. Now that we know what cognitive biases are and where they come from, how can we explain this cognitive bias?

From an evolutionary perspective, in the ancestral savanna, it was valuable for the survival of our ancestors to make quick decisions and to assume the worst, regardless of the accuracy of this assumption. Those who failed to do so did not survive to pass on their genes.

In the modern world where our survival is not immediately threatened by others and where we have long-term interactions with strangers, such judgments are dangerous for our long-term goals. We have to address this and other mental blindspots to make good decisions, whether about our relationships or other areas in our life.[6]

So, take a few minutes right now to think about where in recent weeks you might have misattributed blame. Given the stress associated with the pandemic, it’s easy to do.

Take the time to reach out to those you wrongly blamed and apologize. Doing so can be the start of your life-long journey to recognize and defeat cognitive biases and make the best decisions.

Advertising

More on Cognitive Bias

Featured photo credit: Evan Dennis via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

What Is Abstract Thinking And How To Develop It 8 Effective Ways To Make Hard Decisions Easier 8 Daily Habits To Develop Emotional Intelligence How to Cope with COVID Anxiety And Stress How to Handle Pandemic Depression and Take Care of Yourself

Trending in Brain Power

1 Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts 2 12 Proven Ways To Increase Your Intellectual Wellness 3 16 Brain-Damaging Habits To Stop Doing Now 4 What Is a Fixed Mindset And Can You Change It? 5 What Is Abstract Thinking And How To Develop It

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on June 1, 2021

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

The Skinny on Mental Workouts

Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

1. Improved Memory

After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

2. Reduced Stress Levels

Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

3. Improved Work Performance

Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

Advertising

Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

1. Brainstorming

One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

2. Dancing

Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

3. Learning a New Language

Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

Advertising

4. Developing a Hobby

Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

For example:

  • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
  • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
  • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
  • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

5. Board Games

Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

6. Card Games

Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

Advertising

7. Puzzles

Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

8. Playing Music

Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

9. Meditating

Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
  • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
  • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
  • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
  • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

10. Deep Conversation

There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

Advertising

Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

11. Cooking

When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

12. Mentorship

Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

Final Thoughts

Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

More Tips for Training Your Brain

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Advertising

Reference

Read Next