Cognitive Bias: Why You Don’t Know What You Think You Know

Everything you know is right…right?

Every fact, every memory, every judgement, every bit of information you’ve ever learned, it’s all true?

Or maybe…it’s only true because you want it to be true. Maybe your current beliefs are being shaped by a false memory and you don’t even realize it. Maybe you are only being exposed to a certain type of information and this is impacting the way you view the world.

Unfortunately, all of us fall victim to our brains own processing limits in the form of something called “cognitive bias”. While useful for allowing us to process information quickly to make snap decisions and judgements, this same bias can limit the way we view the world, keep us trapped in dogmatic ways of thinking, and overall lead to poor decision making and judgement. Here’s everything you need to know about cognitive bias, and how you can do your best to avoid it, or at the very least…acknowledge your own personal bias.

1. What is Cognitive Bias:

Cognitive bias is defined as a “systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement”. Essentially, a person creates their own “subjective reality” (existing from one’s individual viewpoint) based off of input they receive from “objective reality” (existing independent of one’s personal viewpoint). This can be due to a variety of factors including bias in how you remember an event, your own choice in what you choose to pay attention to, your emotional state, and simply what kind of information you are presented with on a regular basis.

Ironically while defined as a “deviation from norm”, cognitive bias is extremely common. As discussed, it’s a tool for us to help make sense of the world around us in a relatively quick manner. However, these bias can often get in the way of otherwise logical thinking and lead us to making poor decisions and judgements we wouldn’t otherwise make. To make the best decisions possible, it’s important we are able to discern where bias may be creeping into our lives.

2. Signs of Cognitive Bias:

Everybody displays cognitive bias. While we would all like to believe we act as rational human beings at every given moment, no one is “above cognitive bias”. We all succumb to it on a daily basis and our brain can very easily trick us into believing things that aren’t true. These are some signs someone may be exhibiting cognitive bias.

  • Actively searching for, or giving more weight to information that supports your viewpoint
  • Knowing little about something and believing you know it all
  • Blaming variables aside from yourself in the case of failure, but blaming others for their own failures
  • Overestimating the likelihood of positive/negative outcomes based on your current emotional state
  •  Attributing luck to the success of others, but taking personal credit for your own success
  • Generalizing attributes to a group of people based off your experience with an individual of that group

3. Common Types of Cognitive Bias:

“Cognitive bias” is an umbrella term for many different specific types of bias. Each branching from different reasons such as memory, attention, lack of information, and even emotional reasons. It’s impossible to list out each type of cognitive bias, but here are some of the more commonly seen types of bias.

Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is usually what you’ll hear discussed first when someone brings up cognitive bias. Confirmation bias is when an individual will look for, or give more value to information that confirms their existing beliefs. Likewise, with confirmation bias an individual is also likely to completely ignore, or otherwise discount information that goes against their beliefs.

In Group and Group Attribution Bias: In-group bias and group attribution bias both deal with bias surrounding groups of people. In the case of in-group bias an individual is likely to unreasonably favor and be fair with someone from “their group”. We are biased to favor and protect individuals similar to us. Group attribution bias, refers to bias where an individual generalizes attributes to an entire group of people, based off an experience with only one individual of that group.

Optimism/Pessimism Bias: This is a form of emotional bias where-in if we are in a positive mood we are likely to overestimate the number of positive outcomes for a situation. Likewise if we are in a more negative mood we are likely to overestimate the number of negative outcomes for the situation. Pessimism bias can become extremely prevalent in cases of anxiety and depression.

Gender Bias: An individuals tendency to prescribe behaviors and traits to a certain gender with no supporting evidence.

Gambler’s Fallacy: The false belief that something is more likely to happen, because it hasn’t happened yet. Example: Expecting your odds of flipping heads on a coin to increase because you haven’t flipped heads in the last 20 tries.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: The tendency for poor performers in a task to overestimate their ability at that task. The person in question has the inability to recognize their own lack of ability and may believe they are smarter and more capable than they actually are.

4. How to Avoid Cognitive Bias: 

Unfortunately, you’re never going to be truly free of cognitive bias. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be more aware of it to help ourselves make better decisions and judgements in the future, and minimize the amount of control that cognitive bias has on our life.

Challenge Your Viewpoints: This is the stepping stone to be able to recognize your bias in the first place. If you never challenge your own beliefs you will never be able to recognize the cracks that may exist. Be critical of your decision making skills, and where any weakness in your own thinking may lie. Be open to criticism from other’s in terms of your decisions, and always look to a variety of sources to come to your final conclusion. This does not mean you can not be confident in your decisions, simply that you have critically analyzed your choices before making them.

Be Aware of Bias: You’re already one step ahead on this. You read this article. Simply being aware of bias can help reduce the effects of cognitive bias in your life. Continue to question where bias may be seeping into your life as you move forwards.

Avoid Making Decisions Under Pressure: While “time crunch” situations will always exist, avoiding making as many of your decisions under time pressure as possible will help minimize bias. Cognitive bias is what we use most in these exact situations, so to avoid it give yourself the necessary time you need to make proper decisions and judgements.

Use Previous Decisions as Data: Are you facing a similar situation as you have in the past? Think on what decisions did you make previously, how bias might have effected you, and what the outcome was? This will help you in making your present decision without bias getting in the way.

Consider Your Emotional State/Influences: As we discussed, even something as simple as our mood can cause cognitive bias in our decisions. Consider what factors may be in play for your current decision that may bias you. Are you in an unreasonably good mood? A bad mood? What variables are influencing your decision?


Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.