Cognitive Biases

From Hande Celikkanat

I find it fascinating that no matter how unique you feel yourself to be, in reality you are prone to making the same errors in your daily life as your detestable neighbor :) This is as if we are hard-wired to do the same mistakes over and over again, what is more, we tend to ignore these biases, thus showing no effort to overcome them. Here are some comments on my favorite biases, for a complete list, don't hesitate to check wikipedia ;)


Fundamental Attribution Error & Actor-Observer Bias

If I had promised that I would call you last night, and then I just forgot it, it was because I was sooo busy, and had so much in mind, and was so sleepy from the previous night, that I just fell asleep at 9 pm. You could excuse me, right?

If you had promised that you would call me last night, and then you forgot it, that is only because you are a total jerk! You always care only about your career, and never mind others' feelings!

This fundamental bias of attribution, one that we are especially prone to when we are upset with everybody around us, means that, we tend to attribute our own mistakes to unavoidable effects of our own surrounding, while on the other hand, attributing other people's mistakes to some stable characteristics of their personalities. It is conjectured that, since we actually know the difficulties of our own conditions, such as how really tired we are, it is easier to justify our own actions by claiming "Everybody would have done the same!"

Bias Blind Spot

Briefly, people tend to deny the fact that they are all prone to certain cognitive biases. Holding to the assumption that we always know the right, and decide only after a rational decision making process, we do not bother to take steps for overcoming these systematic biases.

Here is a fascinating example: In one experiment by Emily Pronin and Matthew Kugle, volunteers were told that people are prone to the illusory superiority bias. That is, when a person is asked to rate their own qualities on a random subject, if this is a desirable quality, this person tends to report he is above average. On the other hand, if this is a negative trait, he will tend to find himself below average. (Imagine: If you were asked how well you could swim, would you be tempted to say "above average"? On the contrary, how often do you gossip - perhaps "less than the average person"? This is the spirit of the bias :) Since it is not possible that everyone can be above or below average (otherwise, what is the average??) there must be some bias in our estimation.)

Here comes the catch: People were told about the illusory superiority bias, and then asked to rate how much themselves are prone to this bias. And they responded: Below average! That is, although they had been specifically told about the bias, they could not resist being affected by the same bias when deciding about their own affectedness degree. Therefore, people tend to ignore the fact that they are prone to biases, when trying to make rational judgements.

Hindsight Bias

After watching The Sixth Sense, did you want to say: "I knew there was something wrong with Bruce Willis..."? The Hindsight bias, or the "I-knew-it-all-along" bias, is our tendency to feel that we could have, and indeed did have, predicted how events would turn out from the very beginning. In detective novels, gossipy old ladies always look down on the clever detective, claiming that they always knew who the killer was. Indeed, if we have been fluctuating between two likely hypotheses during an event, after seeing how the event really unfolds, we tend to remember our own initial evaluation of the verified hypothesis as more favorable than it really were.

Planning Fallacy

The I'll get it done by Friday! fallacy. Basically, we tend to underestimate the time required to complete a task. We tend to focus solely on the time to cover the subject, and do not plan for mistakes, pop-up distractions, illnesses, social requirements, etc. (Though I have the strong belief that being a computer scientist kind of immunes you against this positive outlook, and at some point you tend to move to the other extreme, overestimating the time to completing every task since you expect some kind of Murphy-effect in everything :) )

Framing Effect

- Yes! They now called to say that I have got the job at XYZ! I have really tried so hard for this. Let's celebrate tonight!
- Congratulations dear! Hmmm, that means you will be working at their main building, right? So you will be on the road for 3 hours every day.. Well, whatever, I am sure you won't mind, forget about what I said, I am very happy for you!

Sure you have lived through some kind of similar situation before, where the spoilsport who just cannot share your enthusiasm can ruin all your joy :) This is the so-called Framing Effect, meaning that when we evaluate information, we also incorporate its means of delivery, or wording. In the above example, the wording of the negative attitude can cause us re-evaluate the whole thing, and we may even start to regret getting that job. Perhaps this scene is familiar, as well:

- Hey mom, look at this new dress! Isn't it gorgeous? And I found it on a sale, too!
- Hmmm, it is not bad, isn't it? But well, what is this weird fabric, is it synthetic? Honey, you know wearing synthetic stuff isn't healty for you. But whatever, if you liked it, it's all right I guess...

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

In fact officially classified as a "logical fallacy", Post hoc ergo propter hoc means "after this, therefore because of this". People are biased to seek for causality in the environment, and following each other in the time sequence is a general property of causes and effects. We have many times observed that when we push the vase, the vase falls down, therefore pushing the vase is the reason of its falling down. As grown-ups, overgeneralizing this observation makes us attribute events to irrelevant causes, such as, "I have seen her arguing with her husband this morning! And now she has entered the boss' office! She must be quitting the job and leaving town!"