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Researchers have identified many cognitive biases—so many, in fact, that they are too numerous to list here. The large number of biases discovered by researchers is evidence that we humans are prone to think in distorted ways and, for the most part, are oblivious to it. We refer to the more common ones we see in our work as thinking traps.
Read through those eight biases and ask yourself if you can recall a time when you may have relied on these types of thinking shortcuts. You might want to print the list out and put a checkmark next to those that sound familiar. Underline key words or phrases that apply to you in the descriptions.
Being aware of these common thinking traps allows you to get them under control. Realize that you tend to rely more on these biases when you are more emotional, when in a rush, fatigued, or anytime you lower your mental guard and let your mind run on autopilot.
THE BIAS: Attribution Error
The Solution: Blame situations, not people.
When something goes wrong, we tend to blame the personalities and characters of others rather than taking the time to fully consider the situation. Rene clipped the meeting short this morning. She’s an impulsive, inconsiderate person. Chances are Rene cut the meeting short because her schedule that day was overbooked. But what often come to mind first are dispositional explanations.
Don’t underestimate the power that situations have over every one. Situational factors often drive people to act the way they do. Assign blame to people less, but at the very least consider the situation more fully before you judge.
THE BIAS: Confirmation Bias
The Solution: Stop justifying half-baked, uninformed beliefs.
There are many ways we arrive at false beliefs, but keeping them alive is often the role of the confirmation bias. It’s cherry picking. We’re continuously filtering for and focusing on incoming data points that confirm our current beliefs, attitudes, and opinions. Every one does this, and it frequently gets in the way of effective decision-making.
One way to know that you are engaging this bias way too much? You rarely struggle to form your opinions and to make decisions—every thing seems to fit quite neatly into your worldview all the time to the extent that you don’t need time to think or make decisions; you just stick to what you already know and reject what’s new or different.
We all like seeing the world as a stable and predictable place, but the problem is it isn’t, and to learn and adapt, we have to think our way through challenges—this requires not reflexively confirming what we already know or what we prefer to believe.
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THE BIAS: Anchoring Effect
The Solution: Beware how first inputs anchor your brain and hijack your thinking.
This bias, which has been studied extensively by researchers, in many ways can be considered the grandparent of all biases. How it works is that your mind becomes tethered to an arbitrary piece of information (often a number or a value) that has been presented to you. The anchoring effect operates to pull, tug, or nudge you in the direction of this arbitrary “anchor” that has entered (and stays stuck in) your mind as a reference point.
Extensive research has shown that such an anchor will exert considerable influence over your decision-making even when it is completely arbitrary. The research also shows that the anchoring effect is hard to avoid, even by experts who are aware of it.
There are many different ways that anchoring operates in our lives.
Take, for example, those prices scribbled prominently on the windshields of used cars. You are anchored to that price, whether it is reasonable or sky high, the moment your eyes see it. Everything in the negotiation with the salesperson will be tethered to that. Chances are, if you start your negotiation from there, you will likely end up paying too much.
The bottom line is that to address this bias, you must realize that bigger decisions deserve more research and analysis. Look for anchors when making large purchases, researching schools, or deciding on what doctor or medical practice will be caring for you. Sticker prices and advertising anchor us, setting an expectation of what something is worth. And be wary of those “Ten Best” or “Top” lists we commonly see. Those also use the anchoring effect to influence our choices.
THE BIAS: Self-Serving Bias
The Solution: Give credit where credit is actually due.
When things go well, whether we had a hand in it or not, we like to take credit. When things go badly, we tend to assign blame to others or outside factors beyond our control. My teacher grades too hard... The finance and marketing teams dropped the ball... The playing court was slippery from last night’s rain.
A little self-serving bias is not bad, as it keeps our self-image sturdy and our mood positive. Think of people who are the opposite and are overly self-critical. They may hesitate on making needed decisions and can act in self-defeating ways.
The trick is to not let this bias take over and become your default way of explaining everything away. To do this, be less defensive. Take responsibility. Acknowledge your shortcomings. Lay claim only to what you had a real hand in creating or effecting. Try to be more truthful with yourself and with others, and always give credit where credit is due.
THE BIAS: Bandwagon Effect
The Solution: Follow the herd less.
This is related to groupthink and the impulse we experience to follow the herd, even if it goes against our own beliefs and our own values. Groups can exert a powerful effect. We’re wired to align our thinking, emotions, and behaviors with groups of people. We’ve all experienced the strong pull of watching people dancing, laughing, applauding, or singing, and suddenly, we get the strong urge to join in.
When activities or ideas are positive, it’s a way to connect with others and bond over these social moments. The problem is deferring to groups to decide important things that we should decide for ourselves.
Make sure you don’t automatically follow the herd. Don’t lose your independence. Keep your critical thinking always at the ready.
THE BIAS: Halo Effect
The Solution: Don’t be shined on or misled.
Whether accurate or not, first impressions are powerful. What you see or hear first can influence everything else you think about a person thereafter.
Research has shown that physically attractive people, for example, are judged to be nicer, smarter, and more trustworthy, regardless of their true character or abilities. Wealth, athletic skills, and celebrity often lead to this same halo effect. The halo effect can happen when teachers decide what grades to give students. It happens in hiring and promotion decisions in work settings.
Ask yourself this: Would you choose your surgeon or trust a pilot because they are good looking or entertaining? People do. The halo effect, like all biases, is a common shortcut we take, but people with agency learn to rely less on their initial impressions. When the stakes are high, take your time and think critically to realistically assess what is both true and relevant about another person.
THE BIAS: Intergroup Bias
The Solution: Don’t be tribal, unless purely for fun.
This is the classic us versus them way of thinking. Sometimes referred to as tribalism, it’s related to groupthink and to the bandwagon effect. We often prefer (or reject) ways of thinking and behaving based on the groups we affiliate (or don’t affiliate) with.
Identifying with a group is often positive. It can offer us support and resources. It can also be relatively harmless, such as a friendly school rivalry. But beware that this bias can also lock us out of opportunities to expand, to learn, to enjoy new experiences, and to connect with people outside our normal social spheres.
In its darkest form, intergroup bias is at the core of reinforcing stereotypes and fueling divisive, hostile attitudes toward “ others.” Like all biases, it is based on fast thinking, as it packages up the complexities in the world quickly and comes with massive distortions that can lead to negative outcomes.
To guard against intergroup bias, expose yourself to new people and new places regularly. In short, anything that’s a bit off the beaten path for you can accomplish this. Reach out to people you don’t know, smile and nod at people next to you, and strike up a conversation—ask someone about the book on their lap or where they got their eyeglasses that you like, inching further out into the rich, interesting world outside yourself.
THE BIAS: Gambler’s Fallacy
The Solution: Keep superstitious thinking in check . . .
Don’t try to control what you can’t.
We often see patterns in the things around us. That’s because the human brain is designed to look for all possible associations, even ones that aren’t there.
Gamblers fall prey to this quite readily. A twenty-eight-year-old client of ours was regularly betting on sports, mostly with friends in office pools and weekend poker games, and it climbed to a fever pitch during the World Series and March Madness. At one point, his gambling “hobby” got way too serious, and he owed thousands of dollars to a bookmaker.
The main reason his gambling got out of control, he told us, was superstitious thinking. He saw a relationship between his actions and outcomes that were outside of his control, and he believed he could influence them. He linked his winning or losing to such things as the night of the week, the person who dealt the playing cards, or what his girlfriend said to him the morning of a playoff game. He saw his mind “slipping off the rails,” as he put it, into these false patterns.
Smartly, he had the awareness that he needed help. He was motivated to change and willing to do the hard work required. This included meetings at Gamblers Anonymous, coming clean to his girlfriend and parents, and corrective cognitive and behavioral strategies that he practiced daily. These strategies moved him from magical, emotional thinking to more logical thinking. This allowed him to get his life back on track.
For Every Action, You Have A Choice
For every action you take, including reading this, you have a choice. The problem is that most of us are so overwhelmed half the time we have trouble giving ourselves the necessary space to make choices that are both consistent with our values and point us toward the life we want to lead.
Here are some simple reminders to keep you on the path:
- Actively monitor the things to which you give your attention. The many moments we are distracted, or distract ourselves, add up to minutes, hours, and days of missed opportunities to experience something richer, more lasting, fulfilling, and life-changing.
- Seek the company of good people, those who both support your positive aspirations, and aren’t afraid to challenge you when you need it. Minimize time spent with people who undermine you or are overly ingratiating.
- Take care of yourself by exercising, eating well, and developing good sleep habits.
- Press yourself to be open to learning by asking questions, seeking out new perspectives, and surrounding yourself by people who are curious about and open to new things.
- Actively monitor your emotions and beliefs by developing the habit of reflecting on them. At moments when you find yourself seeking distractions, consider whether you’re avoiding strong feelings or emotions. It’s impossible to get the life you seek until you are really in touch with what you believe and feel about the things life has to offer.
- While it’s important to be open to others, remember too that only you, through quiet personal reflection, can know what you want and what is best for you. Trust and follow your intuition, while of course remaining open to information that suggests another direction.
- Use reason and deliberation over passion when making important decisions while never losing sight of your passion. Locate and use it to determine and pursue your own path in life.
The next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that doesn’t feel quite right, don’t ignore it and reflexively press on.
Exercise the discipline to stop. Pay attention to that signal. If the path you are on doesn’t seem right, pause, reflect, and get off. Put yourself onto a better path. If that path isn’t apparent, take the time to create and design one for yourself. Others may end up following your lead.
©2019 by Anthony Rao and Paul Napper.
All Rights Reserved. Excerpted with permission.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, www.stmartins.com.
The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms
by Dr. Paul Napper, Psy.D. and Dr. Anthony Rao, Ph.D.
Agency is the ability to act as an effective agent for oneself--thinking, reflecting, and making creative choices, and acting in ways that direct us toward the lives we want. It is what humans use to feel in command of their lives. For decades, agency has been a central concern of psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers seeking to help generations of people live in greater accord with their interests, values, and inner motivations. Renowned clinical psychologists Paul Napper and Anthony Rao offer seven principles for using mind and body to help you locate and develop your own agency. Based on years of research and real-world application, and stories of both high and low performers, their methods equip you to succeed in a world requiring constant adaptation. (Also available as an Audiobook, an Audio CD and a Kindle edition.)
For more info and/or to order this book, click here.
About the Authors
PAUL NAPPER leads a management psychology and executive coaching consultancy in Boston. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, universities, and start-ups. He held an academic appointment and advanced fellowship position at Harvard Medical School.
ANTHONY RAO is a cognitive-behavioral psychologist. He maintains a clinical practice, consults, and speaks nationally, appearing regularly as an expert commentator. For over 20 years he was a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.