5 Cognitive Bias Explains Why We Make Terrible Life Choices

Cognitive biases have become quite popular in mainstream culture in the last decade, thanks to books like Thinking Fast and Slow and Predictably Irrational.

There are more than 100 biases (188 according to an exhaustive infographic⁴). I’m going to focus on five common biases, share what they are, and how to avoid them.


1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias occurs when people actively seek out information that confirms their opinion and disregard information which contradicts it.

Examples:

  • Getting news from a single source.
  • People who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it, they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. They will also remember details in a way that reinforces these attitudes.
  • Scientists often demonstrate³ a confirmation bias in the way they conduct research when they selectively analyze data in a manner that allows them to confirm their preferred hypotheses.

There are two primary cognitive mechanisms which are used to explain why people experience the confirmation bias:

  • Challenge avoidance: People don’t want to find out that they are wrong.
  • Reinforcement seeking: People want to find out that they are right.

How to avoid Confirmation bias?

  • Don’t be afraid of new ideas or someone else’s opinion. Expanding your way of thinking doesn’t mean you have to agree or disagree with someone or something. You will be able to think more critically about the world around you, and the world needs more independent thinkers!
  • Know that your ego doesn’t want you to expand your mind. Practice humility when it comes to listening to others. Listen twice as much as you speak and you will be well on your way to expanding your mind.
  • Think for yourself. Do not depend solely on what people are telling you — find out for yourself. If you have to do some thorough research, do it.
  • Ask questions that lead to thoughtful conversations. For example, “why do you believe this?” or “what led you to believe this?”

2. Anchor bias

Anchor bias occurs when people rely too much on pre-existing information or the first information they find when making decisions.

Examples:

  • If you first see a TV that costs $1,200 — then see a second one that costs $100 — you’re prone to see the second TV as cheap. Whereas, if you’d merely seen the second TV, priced at $100, you’d probably not view it as cheap.
  • Misdiagnosing an illness by paying too much attention to the first symptom identified.
  • How much TV should your children watch each day? If you watched a great deal of TV as a kid, it might seem more acceptable for your kids to be glued to the TV for hours each day.

How to avoid Anchor bias?

  • Approach each sales negotiation with caution, frequently reflecting on your judgment, you are less likely to fall into the traps of anchor bias.
  • Delay your decision, or do some more research.

3. InGroup bias

The ingroup bias is the tendency that people have to favor their own group above that of others. This bias can have a powerful influence on both individual and group behavior. It may be as simple as favoring your own sports team, or it can be something on a much larger scale, such as favoring people who share your race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.

This ingroup favoritism results in strong “us vs. them” feelings that can cause people to treat those in the outgroup quite differently than those in the ingroup.

Examples:

  • In the workplace, people might find themselves favoring certain people who are part of their unit or workgroup.
  • When considering candidates, hiring the candidate who shares your background.

How to avoid InGroup bias?

  • Your ingroup at one moment is your outgroup the next. For example, when you are the pedestrian entering a crosswalk or when you are the motorist waiting for the pedestrian to cross the street.
  • Put yourself in the place of the outgroup member.
  • Look for commonalities between opposing groups.

4. Sunk cost bias

A sunk cost is any past cost that has already been paid and cannot be recovered. This bias, which is related to loss-aversion and status quo bias, can also be viewed as bias resulting from an ongoing commitment.

Examples: 

  • Keeping something that you don’t need, because you spent money on it.
  • I might as well keep eating because I already bought the food.
  • I might as well keep watching this terrible movie because I’ve watched an hour of it already.

A person may have a $20 ticket to a concert and then drive for hours through a blizzard, just because she feels that she has to attend, having made the initial investment. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the extra costs incurred (inconvenience, time or even money) are held in a different mental account than the one associated with the ticket transaction¹

How to avoid Sunk Cost bias?

Because sunk costs cannot be retrieved, they should not factor at all into future decisions. The money has been spent and is a non-factor in your next decision.


5. Negativity bias

The negativity bias is the tendency for humans to pay more attention, or give more weight to negative experiences over neutral or positive experiences. Even when negative experiences are inconsequential, humans tend to focus on the negative.

Examples:

  • In behavioral economics, people tend to avoid choosing options that might result in loss²: the bad feelings from losing $20 are stronger than the happy feelings of finding $20.
  • Remembering a bad customer experience instead of the good or neutral one.
  • Recall and think about insults more than compliments. You received a performance review at work that was quite positive overall and noted your strong performance and achievements. A few constructive comments pointed out areas where you could improve, and you find yourself fixating on those remarks. Rather than feeling good about the positive aspects of your review, you feel upset and angry about the few critical comments.

How to avoid Negativity bias?

By directing more of our conscious attention toward the positive events and feelings we experience, we can begin to address the asymmetry of negativity bias.


Conclusion

Cognitive biases are just tools, useful in the right contexts. We not only want to get familiar with them, but also accept it’s difficult to avoid biases.

When you’re making big decisions — decisions about your health, finances, love life — you want to mitigate the effects of biases the best you can. Learning and understanding how biases work, what triggers them, and how to avoid them — gives you the opportunity to compensate for its downsides, clears your thinking, and helps make rational decisions.


References

  1. Mental accounting matters, Richard H. Thaler
  2. Prospect Theory and Loss Aversion: How Users Make Decisions
  3. An Agenda for Purely Confirmatory Research
  4. Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic