How Biases Skew a Person’s Thoughts

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A brief overview of cognitive biases and their effects 

What are cognitive biases? 

Cognitive dissonance: the state of mental uneasiness or strain that happens when a person has two or more conflicting or incompatible beliefs, values, or behaviors at the same time. For example, a person who is concerned about the environment but drives a fuel-consuming car may feel cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often caused by heuristics or simple rules of thumb or mental shortcuts that people use to make fast and instinctive judgments or decisions, often based on experience or common sense. For example, a person who wants to buy a product may use the heuristic of choosing the most popular or costly option, assuming it is the best quality or value. Heuristics can be helpful and effective when there is not enough time or information to perform a more careful analysis or evaluation of the situation.  

To reduce cognitive dissonance, people may try to change their beliefs, attitudes, or actions to make them more coherent or rationalize or justify their behavior by downplaying its negative effects or highlighting its positive aspects. Alternatively, they may avoid information or situations that question or contradict their existing views and create dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can influence decision-making, motivation, and self-esteem. It can also lead to confirmation bias, as people look for evidence that confirms their preferred choices or beliefs and disregard or devalue evidence that opposes them. 

Cognitive biases can skew a person’s thoughts in several ways 

  • Distorting the perception of reality and the evaluation of evidence. 
  • Impairing the ability to reason logically and objectively. 
  • Reducing the willingness to consider alternative perspectives or update one’s beliefs. 
  • Influencing the formation of stereotypes and prejudices. 
  • Affecting the quality of decision-making and problem-solving. 
  • Increasing the likelihood of errors and mistakes. 

Common examples of cognitive biases 

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. 
  • Availability heuristic: the tendency to judge the frequency or probability of an event based on how easily examples come to mind. 
  • Anchoring effect: the tendency to rely too much on the first piece of information that is given when making decisions or estimates. 
  • Hindsight bias: the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to predict an outcome after it has occurred. 
  • Frequency bias: known as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon or the frequency illusion, the tendency to perceive the frequency of something based on how recently or vividly it was encountered, rather than on objective data. For example, a person might think that shark attacks are quite common after watching a movie or hearing a news report about them, even though they are statistically rare. This bias can affect how people assess risks, make decisions, or form opinions based on availability rather than accuracy. 
  • Survivorship bias: the tendency to focus on the successful cases or outcomes, while ignoring the failures or non-survivors, thus creating a distorted view of reality. For example, a person might think that entrepreneurship is easy and profitable after reading stories of successful founders while neglecting the fact that most startups fail. This bias can affect how people evaluate their chances of success, learn from the past, or make decisions based on incomplete information. 
  • Fundamental attribution error: the tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to their personality or disposition, while ignoring the situational factors that may have influenced them. 

For more on biases, please visit our other articles on Biases and Psychology.