Cognitive Bias: Bad Thinking and Bad Decision Making

Two things which fascinate me are the ways in which we logically or illogically argue and how our observations can succumb to certain biases. If you routinely study the styles of argumentation which people reason from and then reverse engineer their language, you start finding the fallacious thinking and bias that drives their outlooks. The best examples of when this is on parade are discussions concerning politics or religion, however, they also permeate the minutiae our daily conversations as well.

What inspired this post was a very interesting article that appeared in the statistics blog written by Christie Aschwanden on cognitive bias.  Specifically the “illusion of causality” and how it pertains to the anti-vaccination movement.

Paul Offit likes to tell a story about how his wife, pediatrician Bonnie Offit, was about to give a child a vaccination when the kid was struck by a seizure. Had she given the injection a minute sooner, Paul Offit says, it would surely have appeared as though the vaccine had caused the seizure and probably no study in the world would have convinced the parent otherwise. (The Offits have such studies at the ready — Paul is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of“Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.”) Indeed, famous anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy has said her son’s autism and seizures are linked to “so many shots” because vaccinations preceded his symptoms…

Before we move on to some examples of how cognitive bias affects our daily lives let’s look at a quick definition and how it is different from fallacious argumentation.

Cognitive bias describes the inherent thinking errors that humans make in processing information. Some of these have been verified empirically in the field of psychology, while others are considered general categories of bias. These thinking errors prevent one from accurately understanding reality, even when confronted with all the needed data and evidence to form an accurate view. Many conflicts between science and religion are due to cognitive biases preventing people from coming to the same conclusions with the same evidence. Cognitive bias is intrinsic to human thought, and therefore any systematic system of acquiring knowledge that attempts to describe reality must include mechanisms to control for bias or it is inherently invalid.

People sometimes confuse cognitive biases with logical fallacies, but the two are not the same. A logical fallacy stems from and error in a logical argument, while a cognitive bias is rooted in thought processing errors often arising from problems with memory, attention, attribution, and other mental mistakes.

As indicated cognitive bias and logical fallacies are not the same. However, I am personally “biased” towards the outlook that the two are related, in that one is our view and another is how we argue our view. This opinion is a personal reflection, not necessarily something which has been ostensibly proven or supported empirically. Subsequently you can consider this estimation “a priori.”  

Further investigation into cognitive bias reveals there are upwards of fifty-eight different examples of cognitive bias…perhaps more. With all of that in mind here are a few examples of some which you might find familiar but have been completely unaware of.

Here are three which I see fairly routinely.

The first is what I like to call the “Facebook High-Life.” This is when someone enhances the quality of their life on their FB pages, or other digital mediums, without regards to the realities they are truly facing. This is known as the ‘Self-Enhancing Transmission Bias.’

Another one that is a particular favorite of mine is “Selective Perception” or when one views the world in accordance with their frame of reference. Two great examples of this are sports and at work. In the sports arena we might notice the referee’s penalizing our team but gaff off penalties for the opposing team. At work have you ever had a fellow employee who in your eyes as well as many others, is a total screw-up, but irrespective of this fact they remain the boss’s go to guy or gal? You are left to wonder why everyone else can see your fellow employee’s problems but not management. Well your boss may be suffering from the aforementioned bias.

Projection Bias is the assumption that everyone around you shares your beliefs, outlooks, and viewpoints. This is common in political geographies when it is assumed by someone that everyone in their particular location is politically wired just as they are. Or in other words you are unconsciously projecting your values and positions on the population you live around.

I could go on and on…but I think we get the idea. Bias of any sort is difficult to avoid especially since most of it is unconscious. We are hardly aware of the glitches in our thinking and it is therefore difficult to compensate for. However, this doesn't mean it is impossible to overcome. Awareness is the first step to clear thinking and better decision making habits.  



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