Cognitive bias refers to certain errors in thinking and reasoning. There are different types of cognitive biases which can affect our decisions, beliefs, perceptions and judgments.
What Is Cognitive Bias?
Cognitive bias is a condition in which humans make a systematic error in judgment due to their failure to interpret information correctly. It is an error in reasoning that occurs when an individual misinterprets information about the world around them. This influences their decision-making abilities. It usually occurs when our brain attempts to simplify information for a quick resolution. The concept was first introduced by researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Individuals often use these biases in an attempt to make sense of the world around them and make decisions efficiently.
Studies 1 have shown that humans are capable of recognizing situations that are influenced by their biases and hence are more likely to operate better while attempting to rectify them. There are several types of cognitive bias that influence our decisions.
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Types Of Cognitive Biases
There are more than 175 types of cognitive biases. Some of the most common types of cognitive biases that influence our judgments are listed below:
1. Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to pay attention to information that confirms with the individual’s beliefs while ignoring all the others associated with it. Due to this type of cognitive bias, people tend to favor the information that confirms their previously held beliefs. This bias is particularly evident when it comes to issues like gun control or global warming. In such cases, instead of listening to the opposite party and considering all the facts logically and rationally, they tend to look for information that reinforces what they already believe in. A scientific study 2 suggested that confirmation bias operates by the conscious or unconscious assimilation of evidence that is consistent with one’s assumptions and rejecting any contrary evidence associated with it. In a 2015 study 2 , confirmation bias was found to operate in diverse fields such as fingerprint analysis, forensic anthropology, and assessment of DNA admixtures.
In many cases, different people can listen to two sides of an issue and they may walk away with a different interpretation that they feel validates their point of view. This is evident that confirmation bias is influencing their opinions.
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2. Hindsight Bias
This is a cognitive bias that involves the tendency to see events as more predictable than they already are. A 2009 study 3 pointed out that emergency care and forensic evaluations are areas where this error may color judgments if we are providing an opinion on an adverse outcome. In a 1991 study 4 , hindsight bias was studied extensively in evaluating malpractices or personal injury lawsuits in forensic medicine. For instance, when reviewing medicine for adherence to the standard of care, reviewers who were told that the patient had a permanent injury were more likely to believe that malpractice occurred, as opposed to those who were told that the injury was only temporary.
The tendency to look back on events and believe that “we know it all along” is quite prevalent. For instance, after exams, students often look back and think “of course I knew that” although they missed it the first time. This bias occurs due to a combination of reasons, this includes our ability to misremember previous predictions, our tendency to view events as inevitable, and our tendency to believe we could have foreseen certain events. One 2013 study 5 pointed out that an individual rarely holds his initial belief with great certainty. There is usually a very limited commitment to the belief.
3. Anchoring Bias
In this cognitive bias, people tend to be influenced by the first piece of information they hear. For example, in the case of an investigation, what a person first learns during the investigation will largely influence their decision despite receiving information later on. Researchers 6 have found that having participants choose a completely random number can influence what people guess when asked unrelated questions such as the number of countries in Africa. This bias doesn’t just influence things like salary or price negotiations. For instance, doctors are more susceptible to anchoring bias when diagnosing patients. It was found that physicians’ first impression of the patient often creates an anchoring point that can ultimately lead them to incorrectly influence all diagnostic assessments.
In a 2019 study, researchers gave two groups of study participants a little background information about the person in a photograph. They were then asked to describe how the individual was feeling in the photograph. It was found that people who were given negative information described negative feelings about the person in the photograph. However, people who were given positive background information were found to infer positive feelings. Their first impression of the picture positively or negatively influenced their judgment.
4. Misinformation Effect
A phenomenon called the misinformation effect involves memories of a particular event getting influenced by things that happened after the actual event. For instance, a witness of a car accident or crime claims that their recollection of the events is crystal clear. But researchers found that memory is surprisingly more susceptible to even very subtle influences. In a memory experiment 7 conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, subjects watched a video of a car crash. They were then asked two slightly different questions: “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” or “how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”
When witnesses were then questioned a week later, researchers 8 found that this small change in how questions were presented led participants to recall the incident that they didn’t actually witness. When witnesses were asked whether they had seen any broken glass, the group that was asked the question “how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” were more likely to report incorrectly that they had seen broken glass.
5. The Actor Observer Bias
The actor-observer bias is a cognitive bias which involves understanding the difference between how we explain others’ actions and how we explain our own. For example, researchers showed two groups of people a simulation of a car swerving in front of a truck that almost caused an accident in a 2007 study 9 . One group witnessed the event from the swerving driver’s perspective while the other group saw it from the perspective of the other driver. Those who witnessed the wreck from the swerving driver’s perspective or the actor found it less risky than the people who saw it from the other driver’s perspective or the observer.
It is often found that when it comes to answering for our own actions, we are more likely to attribute things to external factors. For example, the person might complain that they botched the presentation due to jet lag or failed an exam because the teacher didn’t set the questions right. However, when it comes to explaining other’s actions they are more likely to attribute their behaviors to internal causes.
6. The False Consensus Effect
In this case, people have a tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with their own beliefs, attitudes, or values known as the false consensus effect. This can create a false impression to incorrectly think that everyone agrees with them. They also tend to overvalue their own opinions. Some people tend to think that their own thoughts and beliefs are common. However, they believe that other people’s thoughts and beliefs are uncommon. A 2019 study 10 found that false consensus beliefs appear in numerous cultures around the world.
Experts 11 believe that this bias can arise for a variety of reasons. Firstly, we spend most of our time with our family or friends who do not share similar beliefs. Due to this, we tend to think that this particular way of thinking is the absolute fact even when we are not in the company of our family or close members. Another reason is that people like to believe that other people are just like them. This is used as a means to boost self-esteem.
7. The Halo Effect
Research 12 demonstrated that students often rate good-looking teachers as smart, kind, or funnier than less attractive teachers. The tendency to be influenced by a person’s initial impression or external features is known as the Halo Effect. This type of cognitive bias has a significant impact on the world. For instance, job applicants perceived as attractive are more likely to get offers than less attractive ones.
8. Attentional Bias
Attentional bias occurs when an individual’s perception is influenced by selective factors. It is the tendency to focus on a piece of particular information while ignoring the rest. For instance, while buying a car, an individual may pay attention to the external appearance of the car and not the gas mileage or its safety precautions or how we only see food when we are hungry. It can happen because we focus on one piece of information that feels important. Some people are more aware of their surroundings based on the importance of the situation.
A 2015 study 13 showed that people with anxiety disorders can face particular challenges since they tend to fixate their attention on the stimuli that are more threatening and ignore the information that can calm their fears. A 1993 study 14 found that high trait anxiety may be associated with a general inability to maintain attentional focus. Another 2011 study also found that people with eating disorders tend to pay more attention to stimuli-related to food. On the other hand, individuals who are addicted to drugs are more likely to be hypersensitive to drug-related stimuli.
9. Availability heuristic
Another common cognitive bias is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency to give greater attention to ideas that easily comes to mind. When one immediately thinks of several facts that are in favor of a decision, they may be more inclined to think that their judgment is correct. People tend to resort to information that is easily accessible in their memory than the information that is readily available. For instance, if an individual sees multiple headlines about robbery, they might actually believe it to be true rather than looking for information that confirms it.
10. Functional Fixedness
Functional fixedness is defined as how the brain efficiently fixates a particular function to a word, a picture or an object. For instance, when you see a hammer, the immediate function we think of is as a tool for pounding nail heads. But functional fixedness doesn’t apply to just tools. People can develop functional fixedness in regards to other human beings, especially in work environments.
The limitation of functional fixedness is that it can strictly limit a person’s creativity and problem-solving skills. Researchers 15 have found that the solution to overcome functional fixedness is to train people how to notice every aspect of an object or problem. A 2012 study 16 attempted to train participants in a two-step process known as the generic parts technique. The first step was to list the object’s parts. The second was to uncouple it from its use. Study participants who used this method solved almost 67 percent more problems than those who did not use it.
11. Misinformation Effect
When a person reminisces about an event, their perception may be altered if they later receive misinformation about that event. If an individual is learning something new about the same event, it can change how they perceive the event even if the information is irrelevant or untrue. Researchers 17 , however, have found an effective way to reduce this cognitive bias. If witnesses attempt to practice self-affirmations, especially those that focus on the strength of their judgment and memory, misinformation effects tend to decrease and they recall events more effectively.
12. Optimism Bias
Optimism bias occurs when an individual believes that they are more likely to experience a positive event than a negative one. Optimism may motivate people to pursue their dreams but constantly expecting positive results can lead to poor judgments. These may include not wearing a seatbelt, or skipping routine checkups. Excessive optimism can lead an individual to only focus on the positive things and avoid all the negative things. People with this optimism bias often underestimate the risk of experiencing negative events. A 2012 study 18 pointed out that humans are optimistically biased when making predictions about the future, habitually underestimating the likelihood of negative events.
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13. Other Biases
Some of the other forms of cognitive bias are:
- Bandwagon effect
- Moral luck
- Spotlight effect
- Naive realism
- Naive cynicism
- False memory
- Blindspot bias
- Overconfidence bias
- Availability bias
- Dunning–Kruger effect
- Selection bias
- Self Serving Bias
- Cognitive dissonance
- Herd Mentality
- Zero-sum bias
- Framing Cognitive Bias
- Impact bias
- Loss Aversion
- Logical fallacy
- Egocentric bias
- Narrative Fallacy
- Contrast effect
Errors In Cognition
Cognitive bias can influence us in a number of ways without even realizing it. It is inevitable that these biases often interfere with our judgments. However, self-evaluation of the thought process that is influencing our decisions can help to avoid incorrect decision-making. Understanding our own cognitive biases can go a long way to avoid making poor decisions in the future.
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- Satya-Murti, S., & Lockhart, J. (2015). Recognizing and reducing cognitive bias in clinical and forensic neurology. Neurology. Clinical practice, 5(5), 389–396. https://doi.org/10.1212/CPJ.0000000000000181
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- Choi, I., & Cha, O. (2019, December 11). Cross-Cultural Examination of the False Consensus Effect. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6917617/pdf/fpsyg-10-02747.pdf
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