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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

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Published on June 2, 2020

How Not to Let Cognitive Bias Control Us When Dealing with COVID-19

How Not to Let Cognitive Bias Control Us When Dealing with COVID-19

Why have so many people made so many bad decisions around COVID-19?

On the one hand, many ignored the information about the pandemic at first, dismissing its importance. Plenty believed — and some continue to believe — COVID-19 is no worse than the flu and shouldn’t be a concern. Others thought the US medical system would easily cope with it, as it did with SARS and other respiratory infections. Many think it will blow over soon, disappearing with the warm weather in the summer.

On the other hand, plenty of people have taken aggressive — and unhelpful — actions to address their fears. Many have engaged in panic buying, stocking up on more toilet paper than they can use in a year and getting canned goods that they will never eat. Others turned to hyped-up miracle cures offered by modern-day snake oil salespeople, despite health experts clearly conveying that there’s no known treatment or cure for COVID-19.

Such poor decision making stem from dangerous judgment errors that cognitive neuroscientists like myself call cognitive biases[1]. These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to relationships and even shopping, as a study recently revealed[2]. We need to be wary of cognitive biases in order to survive and thrive during this pandemic.

What Are Cognitive Biases?

A cognitive bias is a result of a combination of our evolutionary background[3] and specific structural features in how our brains are wired. Many of these mental blind spots proved beneficial for our survival[4] in the ancestral savanna environment, when we lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. Our ability to survive and reproduce depended on fast instinctive responses much more than reflective analysis.

Our primary threat response, which stems from the ancient savanna environment, is the fight-or-flight response. You might have heard of it as the saber-toothed tiger response: our ancestors had to jump at a hundred shadows to get away from a saber-toothed tiger or to fight members of an invading tribe.

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This lizard brain response proved a great fit for the kind of short-term intense risks we faced as hunter-gatherers. We are the descendants of those who had a great instinctive fight-or-flight response: the rest did not survive.

Unfortunately, our natural gut reaction to threats to either fight or flee results in terrible decisions in the modern environment. It’s particularly bad for defending us from major disruptions caused by the slow-moving train wrecks we face in the modern environment, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, the people who ignored — and continue to ignore — the reality of the dangers from COVID-19 are expressing the flight response. They’re fleeing from uncomfortable information, ignoring the reality of the situation. The people who are taking aggressive and unhelpful actions are expressing the fight response: trying to take control of the situation by doing what they can to fight COVID-19.

Neither of these very natural responses is the right response, of course. Our natural instincts often lead us in exactly the wrong direction in our modern civilized environment. That’s why we need to adopt civilized (and unnatural) behavior habits to ensure we develop mental fitness to make the best decisions.

You already take unnatural and civilized steps for the sake of your physical health. In the ancient savanna, it was critical for us to eat as much sugar as possible to survive when we came across honey, apples, or bananas. We are the descendants of those who were strongly triggered by sugar. Right now, our gut reactions still pull us to eat as much sugar as possible, despite the overabundance of sugar in our modern world and the harm caused by eating too many sweets.

Just like you take proactive steps to go against your intuition to protect your physical health, you need to go against your intuitions and adopt civilized decision-making habits to protect yourself from COVID-19 and so many other modern-day problems that didn’t exist in the ancestral savanna.

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The Most Relevant Cognitive Biases for COVID-19

More specifically, you need to watch out for three cognitive biases.

The Normalcy Bias

The normalcy bias[5] refers to the fact that our intuitions cause us to feel that the future, at least in the short and medium term of the next couple of years, will function in roughly the same way as the past: normally. That was a safe assumption in the savanna environment, but not today, when the world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace.

This bias leads us to fail to prepare nearly as well as they should for the likelihood and effects of major disruptions, especially slow-moving train wrecks such as pandemics. As a result, we tend to vastly underestimate both the possibility and impact of a disaster striking us.

Moreover, in the midst of the event itself, people react much more slowly than they ideally should, getting stuck in the mode of gathering information instead of deciding and acting.

While the normalcy bias is the most harmful cognitive bias from which we suffer in the face of the pandemic, it’s far from the only one. In fact, a number of other cognitive biases combined with normalcy bias lead to bad decisions about the pandemic.

The Attentional Bias

One of these, attentional bias, refers to our tendency to pay attention to information that we find most emotionally engaging, and to ignore information that we don’t[6]. Given the intense, in-the-moment nature of threats and opportunities in the ancestral savanna, this bias is understandable. Yet, in the modern environment, sometimes information that doesn’t feel emotionally salient is actually really important.

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For example, the fact that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and caused massive sickness and deaths there didn’t draw much attention as a salient potential threat among Europeans and Americans. It proved too easy to dismiss the importance of the outbreak in Wuhan due to stereotypical and inaccurate visions of the Chinese heartland as full of backwoods peasants.

In reality, Wuhan is a global metropolis. The largest city in central China, it has over 11 million people and produced over $22.5 billion in 2018. It has a good healthcare system, strengthened substantially by China after the SARS pandemic. A major travel hub, Wuhan’s nickname is “the Chicago of China”; it had over 500 international flights per day before the outbreak. If we assume an average of 250 people per plane, that’s 10,000 people a day flying out of Wuhan.

Europeans and Americans, with the exception of a small number of experts, failed to perceive the threat to themselves from the breakdown of Wuhan’s solid healthcare system as it became overwhelmed by COVID-19. They arrogantly assumed this breakdown pointed to the backwardness of central China, rather than the accurate perception that any modern medical system would become overwhelmed in the face of the novel coronavirus.

In the savanna environment, our ancestors had to live in and for the moment since they couldn’t effectively invest resources to improve their future states (it’s not like they could freeze the meat of the mammoths they killed). Right now, we have many ways of investing into our future lives, such as saving money in banks. Yet our instincts always drive us to orient toward short-term rewards and sacrifice our long-term future, a mental blind spot called hyperbolic discounting[7].

This helps explain why so many people are not focusing sufficiently on the long-term impact of the pandemic. Many are rushing to “get back to normal,” failing to realize that doing so will leave them very vulnerable both to COVID-19 and the disruptions accompanying the impact of the pandemic.

The Planning Fallacy

We tend to feel optimistic about our plans: we made them, and therefore the plans must be good, right? We intuitive feel that our plans will go accordingly, failing to prepare adequately enough for threats and risks. As a result, our initial plans often don’t work out. We either fail to accomplish our goals or require much more time, money, and other resources to get where we wanted to go originally, a cognitive bias known as the planning fallacy[8]. Moreover, we don’t pivot quickly enough when external events require us to change our plans.

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Thus, the vast majority of us were unprepared for a major disruption like COVID-19. Moreover, a great many people tried to go ahead with their plans when they should have pivoted, such as holding weddings, going on vacations, and so on.

Addressing Cognitive Bias

To address these cognitive biases in relation to the pandemic, you have to adopt a realistic and even pessimistic perspective. We have no way of coping with the pandemic save a combination of shutdowns and social distancing. We will see wave-like periods[9] of tight restrictions that result in less cases, then loosened restrictions with spikes of cases, and then again tightened restrictions.

Such waves will last until we find an effective vaccine and vaccinate at least the most vulnerable demographics, which in the most optimistic scenario will not be until late 2021. If things don’t go perfectly, it might be more like 2023 or 2024: that’s the moderate scenario. In more pessimistic scenarios, we might not have an effective vaccine until 2027 or even later.

Does that feel unreal to you? That’s the cognitive biases talking. We still don’t have an effective vaccine for the flu, as our current version is only about 50% effective in preventing infections.

Ray Dalio, who leads Bridgewater Associates and manages over $150 billion in investor assets, said early in the pandemic : “As with investing, I hope that you will imagine the worst-case scenario and protect yourself against it”[10]. So what would it mean for you if you plan for the worst while, of course, hoping for the best?

The Bottom Line

You need to pivot for the long term by revising your plans[11] in a way that accounts for the cognitive bias associated with COVID-19. By doing so, you’ll protect yourself and those you care about from our deeply inadequate gut reactions in the face of such slow-moving train wrecks.

More Tips on Overcoming Cognitive Bias

Featured photo credit: Ani Kolleshi via unsplash.com

Reference

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