“Being human means being flawed. Perfectly flawed.” – Rhonda Britten
When asked about their driving skills, 93% of US drivers put themselves in the top 50%. If that sounds mathematically Impossible, it is. It’s also a great example of a cognitive bias, which is the human brain’s tendency to draw incorrect conclusions. This one is called “superiority bias”, based on an over-assessment of our own skill set. Most people are subject to it (but not you, right?)
Cognitive biases have always existed and many of these are recognizable cultural norms. Doing things just because others are (“herd mentality”), buying something you shouldn’t have and convincing yourself it was a good idea (“post-purchase rationalization”) and underestimating the time to complete tasks (“planning fallacy”) are all examples of common cognitive biases.
Prior to the 1970s most scientists treated humans as “rational beings”, meaning they believed that if we had all the appropriate information, we would make logical decisions. Sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, it is not true. We constantly make decisions that make sense in our own minds, but seem suspect when viewed through an objective lens. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were the first scientists to define and study these phenomenon back in 1972.
Since then, scientists have identified a lot of biases (105 at last count). Thankfully, Eric Fernandez has put together a study guide on all of them with links to Wikipedia for details. In general, there are 4 main groupings:
- 19 Social Biases related to personal interactions and groups, such the tendency to engage in behaviors that will confirm existing attitudes (“self-fulfilling prophecy”)
- 8 Memory Biases that affect how we remember things, such as the idea we are responsible for desirable outcomes but not responsible for undesirable ones (“self-serving bias”)
- 42 Decision Making Biases that impact how we choose and make decisions, such as the aforementioned “planning fallacy”
- 36 Probability & Belief Biases associated with why we believe something happened or whether it will happen in the future, such as the tendency to perform or perceive differently when we know we are being observed (“Hawthorne effect”)
If you look at the full list, you will find a few that sound familiar, but probably quite a number that you didn’t realize exist.
The good news is these “bugs” in our brain software are predictable and you can learn to recognize them, and ultimately counteract them, so you can make better decisions. It’s also helpful to understand why others make the choices that they do. So go take a look. It will give you another peek at how the world really works.
4th Piece of Advice: Understand how humans can be predictably wrong in many situations (including you). Make a practice of looking for new scenarios where this happens.
Want to learn more?
Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:
- Book: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
- Video: The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert