Get psyched!


TechLife Australia - - WELCOME - [ SHARMISHTA SARKAR ]

WE HU­MANS ARE ra­tio­nal, think­ing be­ings. Or so we be­lieve. What most of us don’t re­alise is that there are plenty of psy­cho­log­i­cal glitches that make us, well, quite ir­ra­tional. Cog­ni­tive bi­ases — or the in­vol­un­tary pen­chant of pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion through the fil­ter of our own feel­ings, emo­tions, wants and needs — can of­ten lead us to ar­rive at de­ci­sions drawn in an il­log­i­cal man­ner. The good news is that, with a bit of ef­fort, you can get around them — all it takes is a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing and aware­ness.


There’s a hand­ful of bi­ases that im­pact the de­ci­sions we make, but they’re by no means the only cog­ni­tive bi­ases we suf­fer from. One of the big­gies is the ‘an­chor­ing ef­fect’, also known as fo­cal­ism, which is the hu­man ten­dency to latch on to the first piece of in­for­ma­tion we re­ceive — the first im­pres­sion. Any­one who’s ever bought a car, house or ne­go­ti­ated a deal will, per­haps sub­con­sciously, know some­thing about this. The ini­tial price set for a house or car will usu­ally have ram­i­fi­ca­tions through­out the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

For ex­am­ple, peo­ple gen­er­ally re­act to choices dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on how they’re pre­sented to them, like how an­swers can vary de­pend­ing on the way a ques­tion is asked. The fram­ing ef­fect is par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant when it comes to mak­ing choices in­volv­ing risk — if the neg­a­tive as­pects of a sit­u­a­tion are high­lighted, we seem more in­clined to take on risks as op­posed to when the same sit­u­a­tion is de­scribed pos­i­tively. Psy­chol­o­gists at­tribute this to the fact that the pain of los­ing is a more pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tor than the joy of win­ning.

Then there’s the ‘avail­abil­ity heuris­tic’, a men­tal short­cut that in­flu­ences de­ci­sions by re­ly­ing on sim­i­lar con­cepts or ex­am­ples that you’re al­ready fa­mil­iar with. To quote the jour­nal Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy, “Peo­ple who read more case stud­ies of suc­cess­ful busi­nesses may judge the prob­a­bil­ity of run­ning a suc­cess­ful busi­ness to be greater,” as they can’t bring to mind ex­am­ples of fail­ures.

The of­ten un­con­scious ten­dency to deal with in­for­ma­tion in a man­ner that reaf­firms our pre­con­cep­tions is called ‘con­fir­ma­tion bias’. This makes us want to be­friend peo­ple who agree with us, or feel un­com­fort­able around oth­ers who make us feel in­se­cure about our views (this of­ten causes ‘cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance’ — aka the dis­com­fort of try­ing to hold two con­flict­ing ideas in your head). The neu­ro­trans­mit­ter oxy­tocin, the ‘love mol­e­cule’, helps us forge bonds with oth­ers, but has the op­po­site ef­fect with peo­ple be­yond our group, mak­ing us sus­pi­cious of out­siders.

Con­stant neg­a­tiv­ity also plays a ma­jor role in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. When faced with an in­creas­ing num­ber of road­blocks, peo­ple tend to bull­doze ahead rather than change course, de­spite that be­ing ir­ra­tional. The most cited ex­am­ple is fi­nancier Robert Cam­peau’s at­tempted ac­qui­si­tion of lux­ury New York depart­ment store Bloom­ing­dale’s in the 1980s af­ter a hos­tile bid­ding war. The more heated the ne­go­ti­a­tions got, the harder Cam­peau fought to gain con­trol of the com­pany, lead­ing to his even­tual bank­ruptcy.

And lastly, there’s ‘hind­sight bias’ — the ten­dency of peo­ple to over­es­ti­mate their abil­i­ties in pre­dict­ing out­comes of sit­u­a­tions that nor­mally can’t be pre­dicted. If your friend says the Wal­la­bies will win the Rugby World Cup and they do end up win­ning, your friend has boast­ing rights. Also, our moth­ers have of­ten had ‘feel­ings’ that some­thing would come to pass af­ter the fact.


As we men­tioned ear­lier, aware­ness of your bi­ases is the real key to re­duc­ing their in­flu­ence. Ad­mit­tedly, stay­ing aware of them can be dif­fi­cult and, more of­ten than not, we need help. Turn to your best friend or trusted col­league to give you feed­back. It might re­quire a cer­tain amount of courage on the part of both of you, but if you can keep an open mind, the feed­back can be quite con­struc­tive.

While we shouldn’t al­low neg­a­tiv­ity to bog us down or lose con­fi­dence, a healthy amount of scep­ti­cism is al­ways a good thing, as is the abil­ity to ad­mit to your mis­takes and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for fail­ures. Do your best to avoid fads and trends and steer clear of as­sump­tions and, lastly, re­mem­ber to try to avoid just seek­ing out con­fir­ma­tion of your cur­rent be­liefs — in­stead, look at both sides of the ar­gu­ment and try to ob­jec­tively weigh the strengths of any dis­con­firm­ing ev­i­dence, too. And hey, you might find that you’re still cor­rect — but by us­ing these tech­niques, you should, at the very least, be a lit­tle less bi­ased.


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