The Dangers of Cognitive Bias

By: Shifa Malik

Have you ever thought about the way that you view other people’s accomplishments and wondered whether they achieved what they did from luck or hard work? Have you compared their achievements to your own? The way we process situations like this, or our emotions, can be negatively affected by our cognitive bias. This is when an error or deviation occurs in the way we process sensory information or any other thought, and it influences our beliefs and perceptions. The reason this occurs is that the brain wants to take a shortcut in processing that sensory information and sometimes it makes a mistake because it didn’t process it the right way (this will be elaborated on later in the article). For example, there’s a type of cognitive bias called confirmation bias, where one only pays attention to the facts that support their argument, while ignoring the facts that don’t support the argument opposition. This is because they’re not open to other beliefs since the brain takes a shortcut and realizes this new information doesn’t match into any of the existing information. Sounds familiar, right? This happens all the time in the field of politics. There are countless types of cognitive biases and they are important to understand because being aware of our biases will decrease the consequences they have on us when we process different perspectives or other information.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons @ John Manoogian III

You may be wondering, well, why do we even have biases in the first place? Isn’t there a way to prevent it? There are some theories as to why we have them, but none have been proven. In the early 1970s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were two psychologists that first linked the concept of heuristics to cognitive bias. Their research found that despite the billions of neurons and synaptic connections our brain holds, it’s still not enough for the organ to process all the information that our senses are sending to the brain. To solve this overload of info, our brains take ‘shortcuts’ or what’s known as a heuristic. Basically, it’s where we use examples or a ‘prototype’ of a concept to categorize what we’re processing and make it make sense to us. It’s helpful in allowing us to make faster decisions and process information rapidly, but it has the same negative consequences as taking a shortcut in real life: it can lead to errors. Since we’re creating an inference about the information we’ve received, the conclusion that we come to about the information could be wrong because we’re not thoroughly processing the new information. Cognitive biases can be affected by one’s external environment, upbringing, and values, which is what the brain uses to create heuristics. Everyone is susceptible to cognitive biases and to many different types of them.

There are a lot of biases that you may not have even thought were considered to be a cognitive bias. One such bias is the hindsight bias. This bias can be described when one thinks something happens more than it actually does. For instance, many people are surprised when they find out humans are more likely to be killed by a vending machine falling on top of them versus being killed by a shark attack. These biases can also affect more serious parts of our lives. Another subcategory of cognitive bias is the anchoring bias, which is when one gives too much weight to the first piece of information they receive. An example of this can be found when a doctor is diagnosing a patient and they don’t pay enough attention to the patient’s complaints that come after their first one. This is why it’s important to write down every single detail about that patient’s history and their current problem. Another tricky bias is the misinformation effect, where one’s memory of something changes over time and they may recall it differently if asked about it after a long time period. This has been shown to affect witness reports during a crime or other horrific events because the witness themselves changes their memory of the event due to this bias.

Despite clouding our judgment and memories, cognitive bias can’t be avoided. However, it helps to stay open-minded and intuitive when considering the facts or when creating an impression of something. After all, our cognitive bias isn’t something we can control, but it’s something we can be aware of.


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What Did You Learn?


1. Why is cognitive bias dangerous?

It’s dangerous because it can change the way we remember something, it can lead us to believe something that is false, and it can cause us to jump to conclusions before considering the full picture.

2. What can we do to try to steer away from cognitive bias?

Keep an open mind when considering someone else’s thoughts or learning new things. When it comes to your memory, there’s not much you can do, but don’t try to fabricate something you’re not sure about. For example, when you create an impression about something, be as open-minded and detailed as you can try not to jump to conclusions about someone purely based on their looks.

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