TRICK YOUR BRAIN INTO MAKING MORE RATIONAL DECISIONS.
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.
COMMON COGNITIVE BIASES IN DECISION MAKING
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.
MITIGATING COGNITIVE BIAS
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.
THE OFTEN UNCONSCIOUS TENDENCY TO DEAL WITH INFORMATION IN A MANNER THAT REAFFIRMS OUR PRECONCEPTIONS IS CALLED ‘CONFIRMATION BIAS’.