William Hwang Psy.D.
Awareness of cognitive biases can be our best defense against faulty thinking.
Posted June 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- We are all susceptible to cognitive bias—the brain’s tendency to make errors of judgment systematically.
- Three common cognitive biases are the fundamental attribution error, the availability heuristic, and the planning fallacy.
- Adjusting our expectations and being mindful can help overcome cognitive biases.
Source: Samantha Sophia/Unsplash
If you have a brain, you are susceptible to cognitive bias. That is, you are vulnerable to the brain’s tendency to make errors of judgment systematically.
Imagine a faulty scale that always adds two pounds to your actual weight or a clock that is two minutes slow. If we didn’t know any better, we would forever be under the impression we are two pounds heavier than we actually are or be two minutes late for everything and start believing we have a time management problem.
However, once we recognize that a consistent measurement mistake is being made, we can mentally account for it by actively recalibrating to the correct amount.
My clock says 9:55, but I know it is really 9:57.
This is the basis for cognition-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, where a therapist can help you recognize these consistent mistakes in measurement our brain makes, which we call cognitive distortions or thinking errors, and practice correcting them.
Even if you are not actively engaged in therapy, you can still combat these cognitive biases on your own.
Here are three of my favorites:
1. Fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency for us to explain our actions by pointing to environmental factors and others’ actions by pointing to their character or personality.
I snapped at my partner because I was stressed from work, but they snapped at me because they are bad at managing their feelings.
We often overestimate the influence of disposition and temperament on a person’s behavior while underestimating the influence of environmental or situational factors.
For instance, let’s say are in a meeting and a co-worker shows up a few minutes late.
Where do they get off thinking they can just waltz in late? How arrogant!
What if we knew that co-worker had just found out a family member was in a serious accident and needed to check if they were okay? What if they had been told the wrong time? Would that change the way that we view their behavior?
To overcome the fundamental attribution error, you might try actively considering three more possibilities for why a person could have acted the way they did before chalking it up to a personality flaw.
It can be challenging for me sometimes to let go of a conclusion about why something happened once my mind lands on it, so just know this can take a lot of mindful practice.
2. Availability heuristic. We tend to make predictions or evaluations based on the most salient examples or examples that most easily come to mind.
You always leave dirty dishes in the sink! Well, it sure seems like always!
We can give undue weight to information we were most recently exposed to rather than taking a step back and seeing how likely something is.
For example, if we recently read a news article about a person dying after being stung by a bee, we may worry about this happening to us the next time we step outside. What would you say the chances would be? 5 percent? 1 percent? According to the National Safety Council, there is a 1 in 57,825 chance. In other words, a .0017 percent chance.1 Put another way if you imagined yourself and 57,824 people in a (very large) room, one person would perish in this way.
To overcome the availability heuristic, you might try determining the actual evidence. What are the actual odds of this happening in the greater perspective? To avoid always/never extreme ways of thinking that make you feel like things are worse than they actually are, you might try actively thinking of counter-examples.
For example, if you are stressed and feel like things are always stressful, ask yourself if that is actually true? Can you think of recent moments, however brief, that was at least less stressful than how you feel now? The chances are that the availability heuristic may be in play if you experience all-or-nothing thinking.
3. Planning fallacy. The tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a future task.
It says it’s a seven-minute drive, so I can leave at 2:53 pm and get there exactly at 3 pm. It’s perfect!
We can find ourselves wondering how we are constantly in a rush, scrambling to finish projects, or frustrated that things are taking longer than we expected.
For example, say you need to renew your license at the DMV. You estimate it should take 45 minutes, so you schedule an appointment during your lunch break to avoid going on the weekend. When you get to the DMV, lo and behold, 20 other people had the same idea.
You’re optimistic, though, so you take your number and wait. Still, after 30 minutes, the realization begins to set in that no matter how you try to communicate telepathically, you are in a rush and make the line go faster. You will not be called up in time and end up frustrated, frazzled, and without a renewed license.
We can systematically build in extra time for ourselves to overcome the planning fallacy. More time than we think we need. Just like we would start automatically adding or subtracting minutes to the time we see on a clock we know has been broken for a while, it starts to evolve into a habit once we start building in extra time for our tasks. Even though we may not know what unexpected obstacles will come up each day, we can expect them to come up!
Hopefully, these strategies can help you perceive the world more accurately and effectively so that you, not your brain’s cognitive biases, are in charge.