The Importance of Recognizing Cognitive Bias: Becoming a Better Thinker


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The Importance of Recognizing Cognitive Bias: Becoming a Better Thinker

What is cognitive bias?

Have you ever wondered why people behave the way they do? Have you ever judged someone's actions based on their personality, without considering the situation they were in? Have you ever taken credit for your successes, but blamed others or external factors for your failures? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might have fallen victim to cognitive biases.

A cognitive bias is a "systematic error" in thinking that affects how we process information, perceive others, and make decisions. It can lead to irrational thoughts or judgments and is often based on our perceptions, memories, or individual and societal beliefs. Cognitive biases are predictable patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. There are many types of cognitive biases, such as anchoring bias, confirmation bias, belief bias, actor-observer bias, etc. Cognitive biases are not always negative, but they can cloud our judgment and affect how clearly we perceive situations, people, or potential risks. There are a variety of cognitive biases that we can learn to recognize and avoid to improve our thinking.

What is Fundamental Attribution Error?

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overestimate the importance of character traits and underestimate the importance of situation and context when judging others’ behavior. For example, if you see someone driving recklessly, you might assume that they are a bad driver or an irresponsible person, without taking into account the possibility that they are in a hurry, stressed, or have an emergency. On the other hand, if you drive recklessly yourself, you might attribute your behavior to the traffic, the weather, or the other drivers.

Committing the fundamental attribution error, we might judge others unfairly, stereotype them, or ignore their perspectives. 

One recent example of a fundamental attribution error in politics is the debate over the COVID-19 pandemic response in different countries. Some people might blame the leaders of countries like China, Italy, or Brazil for their poor handling of the crisis, while ignoring the factors such as population density, health care system, political culture, and external pressure that influenced their decisions. On the other hand, some people might praise the leaders of countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, or South Korea for their effective containment measures, while overlooking the difficulties and trade-offs they had to make in terms of economic costs, social impacts, and international relations.

Some scholars suggest that social phenomena should be viewed as a balance between human action and limitations. The prevalent shortcomings in governance during the COVID-19 pandemic often lead to narratives that disproportionately highlight human action while downplaying limitations. The sheer magnitude of these failures, with only a few global governance systems successfully implementing policies to manage COVID-19, indicates a need for a more in-depth examination of the restrictions faced by policy-makers.

What is Self-serving Bias?

The self-serving bias refers to an individual’s inclination to associate positive results with their own qualities and negative results with external circumstances. For instance, if you excel in a test, you may credit your success to your intelligence, diligence, or aptitude. Conversely, if you perform poorly, you may attribute the failure to the test’s difficulty, unfair marking, or unfortunate luck. The self-serving bias differs from the fundamental attribution error as its main function is to safeguard self-esteem by attributing negative outcomes to external factors and positive outcomes to one’s own qualities.

When we commit self-serving bias, we might inflate our ego, avoid responsibility, or miss opportunities to learn from our mistakes. In the case of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges in 2006. Abramoff admitted that he used his influence and connections to secure lucrative deals for himself and his associates, while concealing his illegal activities from the public and the government. He also blamed his downfall on the “culture of corruption” in Washington, D.C., and claimed that he was not aware of the extent of his wrongdoing.

These examples show how self-serving bias can distort our perception of reality and impair our critical thinking skills. To overcome this bias, we need to be more aware of our own motivations and emotions, as well as the context and evidence behind our claims. We also need to be open-minded and willing to challenge our own assumptions and opinions, as well as those of others. By doing so, we can improve our decision-making abilities and foster more constructive dialogue with people who have different perspectives.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is not exactly a form of self-serving bias, but rather a related cognitive bias that can influence how we process information. Self-serving bias affects how we attribute causes and effects to our own actions and outcomes, while confirmation bias affects how we select and evaluate information that supports or challenges our beliefs. However, both biases can result from the same psychological motives, such as maintaining a positive self-image, reducing cognitive dissonance, or defending one’s identity or group. Therefore, they can often occur together and reinforce each other in political contexts. For example, a politician who has a self-serving bias might only seek out and accept information that confirms their success and competence, while ignoring or rejecting information that exposes their mistakes or flaws. This can make them more confident and persuasive, but also more biased and resistant to change.

Another example of a self-serving bias in politics is the phenomenon of confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out, interpret, and remember information that confirms one’s existing beliefs or hypotheses, while ignoring or rejecting information that contradicts them. Confirmation bias can lead people to selectively report or exaggerate their achievements, while downplaying or denying their failures. It can also make people more susceptible to propaganda or misinformation that supports their political views.

Halo effect: This is the tendency to form a positive impression of someone or something based on one favorable trait or aspect, and then generalize that impression to other traits or aspects. For example, if a politician is charismatic and eloquent, people might assume that they are also intelligent and competent, even if they have no evidence for that.

Anchoring effect: This is the tendency to rely too much on the first piece of information that we encounter when making judgments or decisions. For example, if a politician claims that their policy will cost $10 billion, people might be influenced by that figure and ignore other factors or costs.

Bandwagon effect: This is the tendency to follow the actions or opinions of others, especially when we are uncertain or unsure about something. For example, if a majority of people vote for a certain candidate or party, people might think that they are right and should do the same.

Availability heuristic: This is the tendency to judge the frequency or likelihood of an event based on how easily we can recall examples from memory. For example, if a politician mentions a recent terrorist attack in their speech, people might overestimate the risk of terrorism in general.

Framing effect: This is the tendency to be influenced by how information is presented or worded, rather than by its actual content. For example, if a politician uses positive words like “freedom” and “opportunity” to describe their policy, people might perceive it as more beneficial than if they use negative words like “restriction” and “limitation”.

Recognizing These Biases

Both of these biases can have negative consequences for our social interactions, our decision making, and our self-improvement, making it important to recognize these biases and try to correct them. One way to do this is to adopt a more balanced and nuanced view of human behavior. Instead of relying on simple explanations based on personality or situation alone, we should consider both factors and how they interact. We should also be more aware of our own motivations and emotions that might influence our attributions. We should seek feedback from others and be open to alternative interpretations of events.

By doing so, we can reduce the effects of these biases and improve our understanding of ourselves and others. We can also foster more positive and constructive relationships with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. We can also enhance our personal growth and development by acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses and learning from our experiences.

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