Why And How You Are Irrational: A Layman’s Guide To The Cognitive Biases — Part 1

Why do we lose control? Why do we err? Why are we irrational and what the hell can we do about it?

It seems that everyday science is discovering a new cognitive bias—adding to an already bloated and overwhelming list. “What is a bias,” you ask? You may have heard of the terms ‘fallacy’, ’tendency’, ‘illusion’, ‘delusion’ or ‘heuristics’; a Cognitive Bias, then, is essentially an identified influence—or tendency—that causes your thinking to deviate from what would be considered rational, logical, or good judgement.

The distinction between a bias and the terms above is a murky one indeed; they are each technically different, but many people, including academics, often get them mixed up—for example: a fallacy is a mistaken belief; an illusion is simply misinterpreted perception; whereas a bias concerns common, systematic patterns of thought that lead to irrationality. You could also say, I suppose, that biases are the root cause of illusions, fallacies and delusions: in this sense, they are all biases. The technicalities, however, matter not in this article,1 which is intended to inform you of how irrational you are—yes, you are irrational!—and, hopefully, increase your ability to notice it, and tackle it. You are irrational, as are we all irrational—by nature. We’ve evolved to this point2 not because of our ability to think rationally, logically, and to put forth cogent arguments, but because of an ability to think quickly, when it matters, and for the benefit of evolution: namely, to survive, so that we can reproduce:everything stems from this.


Consider the Social Norm Bias: we are influenced heavily by the behaviours of others, we like to follow the crowd, and the crowd likes followers who follow the crowd; this is an evolutionary benefit, because it encourages group formation, cooperation, and ultimately, turns an organism (one human) into a super-organism (many humans on the same ‘team’), which is both powerful and dangerous. As much as this is a benefit to evolution, as much as our biology likes ‘fitting in’—or rather, explicitly dislikes ‘standing out’—and as good as this is for people coming together to make friends, form ideas, build civilisations, it is not without its drawbacks: cults (which are glued together by this bias), fewer people thinking for themselves, the ‘freezing out’ of invalids and social misfits; and, perhaps the worst of all, lying.


Another one is Scope Insensitivity. The best example of which, is TV advertisements encouraging you to donate to a good cause—to help kids in poverty in Africa, for example. Scientists have discovered a strange phenomena: we are more emotionally moved, persuaded—and therefore, more likely to donate—if we see only ONE child in the advertisement; if we see ten children, we are less persuaded; if we see one hundred children, even less persuaded; and so on. This effect has nothing to do with multiplications of ten, neither; the difference can be seen with an increase of only one child.

This phenomenon is not strange, though, when you understand why it happens, that is, when you understand a bit about evolution. Quite plainly (as explained by Yuval Noah Harari in his fantastic book, Sapiens) humans are not very good at knowing more than, say, one hundred different people. Why? Because over the course of thousands of years, individuals have evolved as members of small groups—tribes, essentially—in which the number of members rarely exceeded one hundred. Our brains are simply not equipped for knowing more people than this—not that they can’t, but it is increasingly harder the more people you throw into the mix.

In the few hundred-thousand years or so leading up to the modern-day, knowing more than one hundred people (the average number was probably much less than this) was not only impossible, but not important. Universal connection—even when you count the past 5000 years of human history’–is only a recent development; there has never been such a level of interconnection as there is today. Further, in those days the population was not over 7 billion people—more like 10 million3, and, whether any of these people knew of the other people in the world outside their immediate territory, is a question we cannot accurately answer (yet).

It goes deeper than this, still. When numbers are smaller—e.g. one child in a UNICEF promo, as opposed to a group—we have an easier time thinking about it, imagining, empathising. A diverting observation to consider, here, is how we’re not persuaded as much by our input, as much as what we do with that input, in our own heads; in this case, we’re increasingly less persuaded by bigger numbers of kids shown in poverty not because of the number, per se, but because of our increasingly worsening ability to empathise, and, therefore, likelihood be moved. This is another case of how our biases have served us well—and still can—and how they can also cause us to make some serious errors in judgement; it also explains why the bias still exists today: it has evolutionary benefit.


The purpose of this article is to inform you of the biases, which, hopefully, will make you better at seeing them in yourself, which hopefully, will make you a better thinker, which hopefully will help you get more out of life; to get this benefit, however, you will have to continually do what Dan Kahneman4 calls “thinking again”, which essentially means ‘catching yourself’ before acting on your first thought, and analysing it for any irrationality. This starts, of course, with knowing which biases and other rational flaws to look for. For the Social Norm Bias and Scope Insensitivity, I gave examples and explained somewhat the reasons for their existence; the lion’s share of this article will follow suit. In the case of examples, though, it is much better to come up with your own—preferably, with yourself as the ‘victim’, for this will not only make for more gratifying reading, but better comprehension also.

What follows is not a list of every bias known to science, nor, God-forbid,5 every bias that is apparent to us, which, as discussed earlier, often leads to much confusion about what a bias actually is. Kahneman actually spoke about this recently in a conversation with Krista Tippett, in which he expressed his concern about our chronic overuse of the word ‘bias’: that we are mistakenly confusing it with basic random human error, which is way more common, and should not be blames on cognitive biases. The first law of Randomness: Randomness is actually a thing.

What follows is a list of what I think a) to be the most important biases and cognitive shortcomings to be aware of, b) that are most prevalent in everyday life, and c) that having knowledge of can be beneficial.6 It is important to note, once again, that these biases happen largely by nature, and automatically, which means that noticing them in yourself will require concentrated effort, sometimes a lot of it.

 


 

Biases, Illusions, Delusions, Fallacies & Other Cognitive Errs — An Introduction

Beliefs | Social Influence

Confirmation and Belief Bias

Confirmation Bias denotes our tendency to seek anything and everything else that supports our own ideas and opinions. This can be in the form of ideas, evidence, books, people, science, the people you follow on twitter, conversations—anything that helps strengthen your beliefs, or at the least, does not offend them.

Belief Bias, a subset of Confirmation Bias, is our tendency to think little of and/or completely disregard beliefs that do not sit well without own.

Echo Chamber Effect

This effect was recently awarded a deserved place in the Oxford dictionary. It should have been there a long time ago, no doubt—but better late than never, I guess. The Echo Chamber Effect refers to what happens when a person associates themselves with ‘yes’ people—those who agree with their beliefs, opinions, ideas, etc. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them—who is a threat to their beliefs, ideas, opinions—is by definition not part of their circle, and usually, dismissed or cast as an opponent. A circle of ‘yes’ men is a cult; a cult is an ideology in practice; an ideology in practice is dangerous, and if harmful, can be devastating.7 But it also manifests itself in the micro, that is, in the innocent individual. Take twitter for example: if a regular user of twitter follows only people the like or agree with (and so many of them do, without ever noticing): because they are never exposed to how they could be wrong, are wrong, and what to do about it, they never do improve; and their ideas develop into dogmas, and critical thinking becomes protesting and shouting and victimisation… Now apply the twitter example to the physical world—the workplace, congress, parliament, businesses, friend circles, charities, bankers, world leaders, the illuminati.8—and the issue becomes starkly obvious.

Critical thinking doesn’t grow out of group interaction—it can, but usually starts at the local level, with the individual questioning his own ideas and thought processes; this is already hard (we have something called ‘biases’ to battle with, constantly), but it becomes seriously harder when you have everyone around you telling you how amazing and wonderful you and your views are, and how wrong and unfair everyone else is. If a heroic thinker manages to identify how they’ve been dragged into the hungry quicksands of an ideology (or cult), and that heroic thinker makes their differences known to the other members, two things normally happen: the outsider (the budding heroic thinker) gets ignored, and other members try to persuade them of their ‘errors’; or the outsider the ideology behind, either through being forced out, or by forcing themselves out. The inquisitive reader will ask, ‘what about the scenario where every member of the ideology admits to their errors?’ Not only does this not happen, if it did, the ideology would fall apart—so it is not allowed to happen.9

The Echo Chamber Effect refers to the phenomena that feeds the cults, the ideologues, the dangerous dogmas. Problematically, it will attempt to manifest itself, very subtly, in any situation it can go to work on—in other words, everywhere. The truth is, we cannot live without this effect—we need people in our lives whom agree with us, otherwise nothing would get done, ever—but this does not mean we can’t or shouldn’t look for instances where it may be harming us. 

Like/Love Bias

Failing to notice or acknowledge flaws or mistakes in people or ideas that we like/love. An extreme version of this is when it creates a polarising effect: being made aware of the flaws causes us to like/love even more; and dislike/hate the opposition even more.

Dislike/Hate Bias

The opposite. Failing to notice or acknowledge good or anything positive in people or ideas we dislike/hate. The polarisation effect applies here, also.

Cultural Bias

The culture we grew up matters a lot, an awful lot. It exerts a heavy influence on the way in which we view people, ideas, other cultures, and the whole of society. Without even noticing we judge by standards inherent to our own culture—or the culture we grew up in—which, by default, skews our opinions; every culture, like every religion, has its own set of rules, standards, conduct, ideas, rituals, and so on. 

Cultural Bias is often considered a defining problem with social and other human sciences; this is easy to understand if one considers a set of scientists who were raised in one culture (e.g. 20th Century London) doing a study about the economics or sociology of an entirely different culture (e.g. 21st Century Japan). Sitting on the floor is the Norm in Japan; people from a culture of chair lovers, however, are almost certain to judge Japanese sitting etiquette as ‘weird’—and vice versa.10 When making any social judgements, be on guard against Cultural Bias.

Shooting the Messenger

Also known as Persian Messenger Syndrome—a term coined by Charlie Munger in reference to the Persian emperors, who would kill anyone who brought them bad news. Naturally, the Persian empire didn’t last long. The tendency to dislike bad news, however, lies within all of us.

Some may disagree, but I am of the opinion that most of the time, the good takes care of itself, and it therefore doesn’t need much attending too. We are not attracted to bad news because it is not pleasant, and we rationalise our ignorance to it by creating micro problems with the good, which are easier to solve, and which inevitably get the bulk of our attention. But it is often precisely the bad that needs the bulk of our attention. Matters of business and health are where this tendency show up the most. 

Self-Regard

We perceive of ourselves a highly admirable image. Serving this image is behaviour of a self-serving manner, in which the goal is to maintain or enhance the image (or self-esteem).

Overconfidence and Over-Optimism

Differentiating between confidence and optimism is a sticky matter; they are used so interchangeably that any distinctive definitions have long evaporated. One way to look at them, however, is as confidence typically being about the internal, and optimism, the external. In other words, confidence is more often used when one refers to oneself, about oneself or something oneself is doing; whereas optimism is the word one uses to explain how one feels about a future event, that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on them as an individual. 

The tendency we are speaking about is our unjustifiable levels of confidence and/or optimism in our ability or in the ability of others; in the possibility of difficult problems being solved; and in the future being bright. But is this a bad thing?

Take, for example, the number of optimistic restaurateurs who take on New York: inevitably, most fail. Most business fail, of course—so why do these crazy entrepreneurial spirits even try? Well, look at it this way: imagine if they didn’t try; imagine if everyone was all-too starkly aware of the failure rates (you could say, all-too rational) to even attempt starting a business? What kind of world would that be? A delve into history will tell you all you need to know. 

That said, these people do so not because they are insane or deluded (some are); they know about their minuscule chances of success, but they firmly believe they are either an exception to the statistics—or they include themselves in the tiny portion of people who do succeed. The former belief is, of course, hogwash, but it is hogwash that naturally stems from overconfidence, which is a very, very important trait. If everyone was too fearful of starting a business because, well, why, when all the odds are stacked against you(?), then there would be no businesses, no innovation, no progress. Ditto with approaching a potential partner, public speaking, even driving. The very fact that we know of so many business failures goes to show just how prevalent overconfidence is—and how massively important.

We need to be over-optimistic and over-confident not only to meet people, try new things, take risks and to start businesses, but to make it through an ordinary day. Applied to the wrong situation, though, it can be very, very misleading. Be overconfident, but in the right places.
Authority

We live in dominance hierarchies, which means it is in our nature to follow. Leading is hard, requires much sacrifice, conscientiousness and intelligence; this means that not only are very few people willing to do it, but very few people can. We naturally put our trust in leaders because they are sources of authority. News, education, groceries, information, managers, companies, prime ministers, politicians, the monarchy, and the alpha male—just a few sources of authors by which we are influences.

Social ‘Norm’

We like to fit in. We are pressured into acting and thinking a certain way by the culture and society we live in; sometimes this pressure is a good thing (e.g., cannibalism, smoking indoors, spitting, nudism, murder, etc11) and sometimes it is bad (ostracism, social anxiety, lack of originality, lack of leaders stepping up, etc).

Social Comparison Bias refers to the feelings of distaste, contentiousness and competitiveness towards others whom we feel are in some way better than us. This can be mental, such as being envious of another happiness or contentment; or it can be physical, such as bitterness towards an athlete because of their physique.
Group-Influence
We think and behave differently when part of a group—usually, less admirably. (A variation of Social norm bias.) Thieves and gangs, sports fans and hooligans, a night in vs a night out — there are many examples.

Scarcity Effect
Scarcity does two things: it moves our attention to whatever is scarce, and increases our perceived value. The Scarcity Effect is likely directly linked with the Social Norm Bias. We pay more attention to it because other people are paying attention to it; and our perceived value increases because usually, short supply is a signal of value—and we want some of it.
Jealousy/Envy

Jealousy is a grossly overused word; most people confuse the word it with its sibling, envy. If you’ve ever felt threatened through fear of losing something you value, you’ve experienced jealousy;this feeling of threat, which involves a third-party, can sometimes be over physical possessions, but is normally over non-material perceived possessions, such as status, power, opportunity, rights, and, the most common, relationships. If you’ve ever experienced resentment towards another for what they have that you don’t—such as a nice car, a fancy house, lots of money, power, apparent happiness, or job—then you’ve experienced envy.

Jealousy and envy have distinctive definitions, but are opposites sides of the same coin; they’re like two evil twins that take turns at hijacking your thoughts and torturing you until they get what they want. Jealousy will turn quickly to envy if the thing you were so worried about losing ends up being taken from you, by whom you initially felt threatened by. It works the other way, too; if you acquire whatever it was you wanted, the coin skilfully flips, because now, you must not lose it. 

People who experience envy, therefore, are just as likely to experience jealousy, and vice versa. Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, says that envy ‘makes the world go round’.12 It is hard to argue with this statement. It does highlight, however, how serious these two emotion powerhouses must be taken, especially, when it comes to harnessing them. Left to their own devices, Jealousy and Envy can wreak havoc on both the individual and the group—especially the group, in fact; many a business has failed because it tried to do too much. 

Actor-Observer Effect, & Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

In assessing the behaviours of others—usually their mistakes, we tend to identify the fault as the individual’s (as internal), as opposed to something outside of their control (as external). On the other hand, when assessing our own mistakes, we identify the cause as external. This is the Fundamental Attribution Error. The problem, however, is that the individual is rarely solely to blame for their mistakes. Generally, humans don’t like making mistakes, which means they do what they can do avoid them.13 But they do happen, and when they do, the cause, in most cases, is something external; even in events when the individual IS to blame, the external usually has a large role. 

In truth, we humans are almost totally outsourced; our past, present and future has very little to do with us as individuals. For example, we had no role in where we were born, who our parents were, and how we were brought up; and we have very little influence over our tastes, default mode of thinking, neuroses, desires, inclinations, and talents; and to a lesser extent, our environment, friend circle, culture, and hobbies. This is another rabbit hole altogether,14 but it does shine light on how at the biological AND environmental level, A individual is rarely at full fault.

The irony is, when it comes to our own mistakes, we jump very quickly to the external. The Actor-Observer Effect is a feeling we are all familiar with, one, that if it could speak, would say “Ahem! To me, the rules do not apply”; more simply, tendency to think one is an exception—to rules, natural laws, statistics, trends, herd-behaviour, etc. obviously, seldom is that ever the case. 

Whilst the terms ‘Actor-Observer Effect’ and ‘FAE’ are used interchangeably, there is a difference. The former pertains to an individual thinking they are not both actor and observer, which is responsible for the illusion that they are an exception. An example: Theresa may talk to her friends about her observations of sheep-like behaviour, and slate those who ‘follow the flock’, when, in her pocket is an iPhone X with every social media app installed, a packet of cigarettes, the latest purse, all whilst she sips on the same beverage as her friends; she is both and actor and observer. The latter, FAE, pertains to when we incorrectly attribute causes to individuals—and their character—rather than circumstances.


 

The next installment will look at some external influences on the way we think, amongst a few other shenanigans. It will be released in the next couple of days.

Footnotes
  1. In the case that some of my Science is wrong, and you know how, let me know via the contact form. The purpose of this article, however is to simplify the concept of biases and make people—essentially, anyone who reads it—more aware of their own biases, and, hopefully, become better thinkers.
  2. I’m referring here to the evolution of our intelligence.
  3. This is an estimate, derived from here.
  4. Dan Kahneman—along with Richard Thaler, Amos Tversky, Cass Sunstein, and a few other 800 pound gorillas—had a significant role in bringing this fascinating science to the world. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, written in 2011 for the general reader, introduced the world outside of science to the biases; and also, Behavioural Economics, a field whose creation he had a major role in.
  5. Atheists, feel free to replace “God” with ‘Evolution’.
  6. Here is a list of every scientifically recognised bias.
  7. Remember Heaven’s Gate? What about Hitler and his barbaric sterilisation ideologies?
  8. I don’t believe in the illuminati. I may be saying this because I am part of it, of course.
  9. As the cults have as the biggest commandment they never admit to having.
  10. Inversely, Japanese people may say ‘Kimyōna!’
  11. Most of these are of course banned by law, but why? The answer is Social Norms.
  12. Buffett made his money in investing, a profession in which he is esteemed as one of the greatest investors in history, perhaps the greatest; he has spent his life (he is almost 90 years old) studying consumer trends and the principles that drive human behaviour, which makes him, in the opinion of many, a very trustable authority on the matter.
  13. No doubt, there are people who intentionally err, but this is not commonplace—especially when the error is potentially harmful.
  14. And one that dives right into the most controversial topic in philosophy and science, Free Will.