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Published on May 21, 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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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

social intelligence What Is Social Intelligence (And How to Increase Yours) How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good) How Not to Let Cognitive Bias Control Us When Dealing with COVID-19 How Cognitive Bias Influences Our Decision Making

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Last Updated on September 18, 2020

How to Improve Memory: 7 Natural (and Highly Effective) Ways

How to Improve Memory: 7 Natural (and Highly Effective) Ways

Memory plays an integral role in our lives, both in the short and long term. If you’re wondering how to improve memory, I’m here to tell you that there are natural and effective ways to do so.

Despite what you might think, improving your ability to recall information is certainly possible. You just need to know the right ways to do it.

Let’s dive straight into the first of seven easy ways to improve memory efficiently and reduce the risk of memory loss.

1. Meditate

We live in a world of non-stop, 24/7 information. It’s like a waterfall that’s endlessly pouring news, data, facts, and figures into our conscious minds.

Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to absorb this tremendous amount of information. It’s no wonder, then, that most people struggle to remember information and recall things.

Even if you believe you have a good memory and are comfortable with multi-tasking, you’ll also be aware that there’s only so much information your brain can process at one time. Research suggests that the more information and distractions you receive, the harder it is for you to transfer information to your long-term memory[1].

Fortunately, meditation can help.

Even if you just meditate for 10 minutes per day, you’ll boost your ability to focus, which, in turn, will make it easier for you to remember important facts.

While any amount of meditation will do something to help your memory, one study pointed out that “8 but not 4 weeks of brief, daily meditation decreased negative mood state and enhanced attention, working memory, and recognition memory as well as decreased state anxiety scores”[2].

Therefore, if you’re looking for the most benefits, try sticking with a meditation practice for at least 8 weeks.

However, meditation doesn’t just have to be closing your eyes and sitting in a lotus position. Some people prefer to simply take a short walk in nature. This clears and calms their mind, and still provides the all-important boost to their focus.

2. Get Plenty of Sleep

If you’re sleep deprived or have not been sleeping well, then it’s likely that you’re not able to remember well either. This is because sleep and memory are intimately connected.

If you have a busy life and regularly find yourself not getting enough sleep, then this will negatively impact your cognitive abilities, including your memory.

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If you want to learn how to improve memory, how much sleep should you be getting?

Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation[3], you need a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you get this amount of sleep regularly, then within just a few days, you’ll see a tangible improvement to your ability to remember and recall things[4].

If you want to improve memory, get plenty of sleep.

    Maintaining a proper sleep cycle is not always easy (especially when the latest Netflix series has just been released!), but if you care about improving your long and short term memory, then it’s critical that you try to get at least the recommended amount of sleep every night.

    Try these three things to naturally improve your sleep cycle:

    • Have a fixed bedtime (preferably before 10pm)
    • Don’t eat too late
    • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible

    Sleeping is a precious activity. It regenerates your body, clears your mind, and helps with the storing and retrieval of information.

    However, don’t sleep just yet, as I want to tell you about another great way to increase memory.

    3. Challenge Your Brain

    When was the last time you challenged your brain?

    I don’t mean challenged in the sense of overeating or under-sleeping. I’m referring to stretching your mental capabilities through things like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and memory games.

    To expand your memory bank, and to make your recall razor-sharp, you need to continually challenge your brain.

    Feedback from Lifehack readers such as yourself has suggested that brain training apps are a super-effective way of doing this. Used regularly, these apps can enhance your focus, attention span, problem-solving ability, and memory.

    There are hundreds of these apps available (most of them for free), but I recommend starting out with one of the big three:

    • Peak (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
    • Lumosity (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
    • Elevate (Android/iOS, free, 5 million+ downloads)

    If you normally spend a chunk of your week playing computer games, then instead of shooting and killing your enemies, why not let some of them live while you put your attention into boosting your brain power!

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    Challenging your brain will strengthen your neural pathways and enhance your mental abilities. But don’t just take my word for it; try one of the apps above and see the positive benefits for yourself.

    4. Take More Breaks

    When I think back to my days as a budding entrepreneur, I distinctly remember working all the hours under the sun—and many under the moon, too!

    At that time, I believed that breaks were for the weak, and to become wealthy and successful, I needed to shed blood, sweat, and tears.

    However, if you want to know how to improve memory, taking regular breaks is the best way to keep yourself productive, creative, and alive to opportunities. It’s also the best way to learn new information.

    Typically, when studying lots of new information, most people will spend hours reading it in an attempt to learn and remember the content as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they’ve overlooked something.

    One 2011 study from the University of Illinois concluded that “the brain is built to detect and respond to change…and prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance”[5].

    This is based on something called the “vigilance decrement.” This can be applied to many things. For example, we often don’t notice the feeling of clothing touch our bodies because our brain becomes accustomed to the sensation. However, if you change clothes, you’ll likely notice the difference in texture and temperature for a few minutes.

    When you take a break from memorizing information, it refocuses your attention and energy, leading to increased focus overall.

    It’s similar to physical exercise. You wouldn’t attempt to train vigorously for four hours in a row. Instead, you’d take regular breaks to give your lungs, heart, and muscles adequate time to recover. Failing to do this will result in muscle cramps and overexertion.

    Basically, make sure you take regular breaks when learning new information. I recommend at least a 10-minute break every hour. (You may also want to take a look at the Pomodoro Method.)

    5. Learn a New Skill

    I love this quote, as it’s 100% true but frequently overlooked:

    “Learning never exhausts the mind.” -Leonardo da Vinci

    From my experience of helping to develop the careers of dozens of Lifehack employees, I can definitively say that participating in meaningful and purposeful activities stimulates the mind. It also reduces stress and enhances health and well-being.

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    Let me give you an example of this:

    Imagine you work for a global financial institution in one of their call centers. You take over 100 calls a day, many of them complaints. When you started the job a few months back, you were excited to be in full-time employment and working for a household name.

    Unfortunately, your initial enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration.

    The endless complaint calls began to take their toll on you. And the supervisors irritated you too, as they were far too interested in micro-managing you rather than letting you work in your own way.

    Now, in the story above, the ending could be that you put up with a job you didn’t like and led a dull and frustrated working life for years and years. However, an alternative ending is this: you channeled your dissatisfaction into learning a new skill (computer coding).

    It took you a year or two to get up to speed, but it allowed you to successfully upgrade your career, and the ongoing learning made the call center job much more bearable.

    Clearly, learning new skills gives you impetus, focus, and something to aim for. Your brain loves to learn, and you should tap into this by always seeking out new information. When learning becomes a habit, you’ll find your ability to remember and recall things effortlessly becomes a habit, too.

    If you want to know how to learn something new every day, check out this article.

    6. Start Working out

    If you’re not already working out regularly, then here’s another reason to do so:

    Exercising for 20-30 minutes three times a week will improve your long-term memory[6].

    Regular physical activities increase blood flow in your body and supplies the brain with extra oxygen and nutrients. A well-nourished brain is a well-functioning brain!

    Even if you don’t have much time, research has shown that a daily burst of 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise offered many of the benefits of the longer exercise routines[7].

    Interested in getting started?

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    Here are five different ways that will help you work out:

    • Join a gym
    • Join a sports team
    • Buy a bike
    • Take up hiking
    • Dance to your favorite music

    7. Eat Healthier Foods

    I’m sure you’ve heard the expression: “You are what you eat.”

    This applies to your brain, too.

    The food that you eat helps determine your brain’s capacity to store and recall information. A poor diet (think junk food + soda!) harms not just your physical health, but your mental health, as well.

    Fortunately, there are several foods that are especially good for your brain and your memory. These include: blueberries, celery, and dark chocolate. But any fruits, vegetables, or foods high in antioxidants will have a positive effect on your brain and memory. Here’re some ideas: 15 Brain Foods That Will Super Boost Your Brain Power

    Conversely, highly-processed foods and those loaded with sugar will have a negative impact on your memory. This is due to them providing insufficient nutrients for your brain, leading you to easily suffer from mental fatigue.

    If you want to improve your mental health, eat and drink an abundance of these for brain health:

    • Turmeric – Helps new brain cells grown
    • Broccoli – Protects the brain against damage
    • Nuts – Improves memory
    • Green tea – Enhances brain performance, memory and focus[8]
    • Fish oilFish oil supplements can increase your brain power

    Here’re more brain food options that improve memory!

    Also, remember that your brain is about 75% water, so dehydration can have a huge effect on the way your brain functions. Stay hydrated if you really want to improve memory!

    Final Thoughts

    I sincerely hope these seven memory boosting ways that I’ve covered in this article will be helpful for you.

    You don’t need to implement them all, but you can try out the ones that appeal to you.

    But, if you’re serious about dramatically improving your memory and avoiding cognitive decline, then make a start right now on adopting one or more of the ways I’ve suggested.

    More on How to Improve Memory

    Featured photo credit: Eric Ward via unsplash.com

    Reference

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