18 Cognitive Biases

1. Anchoring

Anchoring is the tendency to fixate upon a single piece of information, typically the first presented. This is often seen in the context of anchoring and adjusting, where consequent decisions are based upon the first piece of information provided.

Judge Motley heard the recommendation of the prosecution in Bill’s grand theft case. The prosecution recommended ten years; Judge Motley handed down eleven. Later that week, Bills’ brother, William, was on trial for grand theft. The prosecution recommended one year. Judge Motley sentenced William to two years.

For more information see: Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5, 297–323.

2. Availability Cascade

Also known as the illusory truth effect, the availability cascade is the phenomenon whereby we are more likely to accept a belief that has been cycled through public discourse. The cascade reinforces itself with little in the way of new supporting evidence.

Steve knows that Senator Kinkade is actually an android. There is no record of Senator Kinkade’s DNA on file to confirm he is human. Just this week Steve received ten different emails about Kinkade. If Kinkade is an android he may not qualify to be a Senator. Just today on both Truth News and the Centrist News Network people were discussing if Senator Kinkade should be required to submit a DNA sample to prove his humanity.

For more information see: Kuran, T., & Sunstein, C. (1999). Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation. Stanford Law Review, 51, 4.

3. Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is the tendency to recall the most salient piece of information. The information that catches our attention best is the information we remember best. Frequency of exposure, content of information, and timing of information determine what is best at catching our attention.

Philip finally has his chance to be on the famous game show Who Wants To Win Lots Of Money. He was sure he had the final question in the bag. What causes more fatalities: terrorism or falling out of bed? Clearly it was terrorism. Philip remembers September 11, but he has never known anyone who fell out of bed and died. The Terror Risk Level App on his iPhone was at Orange. And he just got done listening to a Big News special on terrorism before he walked into the studio. He never expected the loud buzz, flashing red light, and cacophony of moaning that signaled an end to his winning streak.

For more information see: Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207–233.

4. Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is the effect of group consensus on individual belief. Individuals are more likely to accept something simply because the belief is popular.

Sally was not sure who she was going to vote for. It was late at the polls and Nick Chomley was ahead by a large margin. Sally considered the situation and realized that Chomley’s populist support was a sure confirmation of her – although previously unsure – support for him. As such, she rushed out to get her vote in at the last minute.

For more information see: Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31–35.

And also see: Nadeau, R., Cloutier, E., & Guay, J.-H. (1993). New Evidence About the Existence of a Bandwagon Effect in the Opinion Formation Process. International Political Science Review, 14(2), 203–213.

5. Black Swans

A Black Swan is an event that is rare, but has a striking and disproportionate effect upon public sentiment.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were a Black Swan event. Despite being an isolated, rare and singular event they have shaped public policy, both foreign and domestic, for over a decade after the fact.

For more information see: Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

6. Choice-Supportive Bias

Choice-supportive bias is the tendency to increase support for a choice after the choice has been made. Also known as post-purchase rationalization bias.

Jim voted for President Wilcox for the promise to halve taxes and stop wars. Jim did not like the fact that President Wilcox invaded Tolandia, nor that President Wilcox increased taxes by 20%. However, Jim held in there. At least President Wilcox was better than the alternative. Besides, President Wilcox must have had a good reason to invade Tolandia. And we get good things for our tax money, after all, don’t we?Jim knew he would vote for Wilcox again if elections were called today.

For more information see: Mather, M., & Johnson, M.K. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15, 596-606.

And also see: Johnson, M.K. (2006). Memory and Reality. American Psychologist, 1, 760-71.

7. Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the stress that results from holding two incompatible beliefs. Alternately, the discomfort that results from acting incongruently with ones beliefs.

Suzie loves her country, Jesus and apple pie. But what she loves the most is freedom and fairness. When she heard on Fairness Talk Radio that President Rango ordered assassinations and torture it shook her, made her feel angry and upset. She vowed never to listen to Fairness Talk Radio again. She knew it was just propaganda. Besides, President Rango would never order actual torture. Just enhanced interrogations. And there were really no assassinations either. They were tactical strikes. And it was all necessary to keep us free. Suzie loves freedom and by supporting her President she was supporting freedom.

For more information see: Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

8. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that conforms to belief, rather than conform belief to new information. This effects the way that we search for new information, the way we interpret new information, and the way we remember past experiences.

Bobby’s niece has a rare cancer of the pinky-toe. The doctors all say it is a random disease. Bobby knows better. He found a study by one Dr. Rockso, PhD linking rare pinky-toe cancer to eating apples. Bobby realized his niece, in fact, did eat apples. And Bobby found a forum on-line full of people who had rare pinky-toe cancer. Apple-eaters, all of them. Bobby ignored new research that found no link between apples and rare pinky-toe cancer. He knew better: these scientists were shills for Big Apple Juice.

For more information see: Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation Bias; A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175–220.

And also see: Maccoun, R.J. (1998). Biases in the interpretation and use of research results, Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 259–87.

9. Dunning-Kruger Effect

The tendency to overestimate ones capability or knowledge due to having sufficient experience to accurately estimate their own level of knowledge or skill.

Ann never gave much credit to so-called “experts.” She knew that just because geologists say that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old it does not make it so. Besides, that fossil doesn’t look nearly as old as they say it does. And who are doctors to tell Ann about her health. Ann knew better – it was her body, after all. Who could know it better than she did? Why, she has always inhaled mercury fumes to clear up a cold. It hasn’t hurt before and it isn’t going to start hurting her now.

For more information see: Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–34.

10. Empathy Gap

The empathy gap is the difficulty recognizing the degree to which feelings and experience (or lack of feeling and experience) influence opinions.

Joshua turned off the TV. He was sick of hearing bleeding hearts talk about nonviolent drug users in prisons. Of course they are in prison, they are criminals! Joshua shook his head. They deserve to be in prison. Old Aunt Jane used to smoke marijuana and she was just awful to Joshua. Joshua knew better. He never tried a drug. He never committed a crime.

For more information see: Lowenstein, G. (2005). Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making. Health Psychology, (24)4, S49–S56.

11. Hostile Media Effect

The tendency to view media reports as being more biased the more partisan one’s own politics are.

Brittany was a card-carrying member of the Real Eagle Party. She always voted, she supported Party politicians and agreed with every policy. And Brittany hated the Centrist News Network. Why, for Brittany, it was the most radical, extremist news available. She could stand Eagle Talk Radio, it was Just and Correctly-Weighted, but the Centrist News Network was so biased it was insane.

For more information see: Vallone, R.P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M.R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased Perception and Perceptions of Media Bias in Coverage of the “Beirut Massacre”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.

12. Identifiable Victim Effect

There is a stronger response for a single, identifiable victim than for a larger, abstract group of people.

Michael flipped through the newspaper. “Tens of thousands of nomads die in the desert.” Boring. “Gang war in Brazil.” Boring. “Thousands of cases of sexual abuse by prison guards annually.” Yawn. “Little Suzie May, who just turned 21 years old, killed by a drunk driver.” Michael paused. His eyes welled up. The poor girl – it was a tragedy. How was this story not on the front page?

For more information see: Tehila, K. & Ilana, R. (2005). The ‘identified victim’ effect: an identified group, or just a single individual? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(3), 157-167.

13. Irrational Escalation

The tendency to increase investment in a decision despite new evidence suggesting the decision was wrong to begin with.

Everyone thought the war would be over within a year. Jill was against war, but if the cause could be won quickly it would be worth it. Two years passed, three, then four. Most people, including Jill, now realized that the war was a mistake. Nonetheless, the President pushed to invade a second, then a third country. Jill hunkered down, toed the party line and supported the war effort. After so many had given their lives she couldn’t just change her mind now, could she?

For more information see: Staw, B. (1976). Knee-deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16(1), 27-44.

14. Just-World Bias

The just-world bias is the belief that people deserve what they experience and eventually experience what they deserve.

The same homeless man was on the street corner outside of Clint’s work again. A bum. Clint knew why the bum was a bum: he was lazy. And if he wasn’t lazy he was probably a drug addict. And if he wasn’t a drug addict, well, he was clearly a bad person. He would not be a bum if he weren’t. Clint saw a big car pull up next to the bum. It was Mr. Gordo, the owner of the meat factory. Clint shook his head. Two snakes together. Mr. Gordo was dirty through and through, but as far as Clint knew never paid for it. Clint reassured himself that Mr. Gordo would get his in the end. All that goes around comes around, after all. And if not in this life then in the next.

For more information see: Lerner, M.J. & Montada, L. (1998). An Overview: Advances in Belief in a Just World Theory and Methods, in Leo Montada & M.J. Lerner (Eds.). Responses to Victimizations and Belief in a Just World (1–7). Plenum Press: New York.

15. Mere Exposure Effect

The tendency to prefer things the more familiar we are with them.

Ronnie was from Memphis. He loved the blues. His father listened to the blues and so did his grandfather. In fact, Ronnie had been playing blues music ever since he was a boy. His friend Chloe played the cello in an orchestra, but as much as Ronnie liked Chloe he did not understand classical music. It had no beat, no rhythm and you couldn’t dance to it. Ronnie also never understood why Chloe didn’t seem as enthusiastic about the blues as he did.

For more information see: Zajonc, R.B. (2001). Mere Exposure: A Gateway to the Subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 6.

16. Reactive Devaluation

The devaluation of ideas due to their association with an opponent.

“…and most importantly we need to cut taxes,” Barny finished telling his wife. “That’s nice, dear.” Barny shook his head and went outside to collect the mail. He saw his neighbor Zeke. Barny hated Zeke. Zeke was an Eagle; a member of the Eagle Party. Barny as a Bear Party supporter. “We’re working on this new plan to cut taxes. That really is the most important thing right now you know…” Zeke started to say. Barney put up his hand and cut Zeke off mid sentence. Without saying a word, Barny turned and went inside. “Hon! Hon! Can you believe this idiot Zeke was just trying to tell me about this moronic plan to to cut taxes?! These Eagle Party people have some nerve.” “That’s nice, dear.”

For more information see: Ross, L. & Stillinger, C. (1991). Barriers to conflict resolution. Negotiation Journal, 8, 389–404.

17. Semmelweis Reflex

The reflexive rejection of ideas that are new and contrary to an established paradigm.

Mona decided to wear her new pants. They were yellow and cut just for her. Mona barely made it out the front door before her aunt caught her. “Mona! You can’t wear those pants!” “But why not?” “Why, it’s Wednesday. You can’t wear yellow pants on Wednesday. Those have always been the rules.”

18. System Justification, Group Justification & Ego Justification

System justification, group justification and ego justification are the tendencies to defend the status quo, the in-group and the self-image, respectively. System justification, group justification & ego justification stem from a desire to see the current state one is in as desirable, decent and legitimate.

Frank was a good cop. Or at least Frank liked to think so. He always tried to be fair, even if he lost his temper. But if he did lose his temper from time to time, Frank knew there was a good reason for it. It was not him, just the stress of the job. One time, a year ago, Frank’s partner almost beat a man to death for resisting. A departmental review found it was justified, so no harm. These were minor setbacks considering all of the good his department did for the city. That was what was really important. As long as they fought for good and focused on the big picture all of the department’s skeletons were just not that big of a deal.

For more information see: Jost, J.T., Banaji, M. & Nosek, B. (2004). A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo. International Society of Political Psychology, 25, 881–919.

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