Psychology of Biases

Everyone has prejudices, probably that is what makes us human. We have our own opinions and predispositions which we believe to be right, unless proved otherwise. We tend to believe in what we sense through our 5 senses as truth and are likely to develop a subconscious liking for certain sensations. The phrase ‘thinking out of the box’ essentially means moving away from biases and trying a different approach. An attempt is made here to study the working of human mind behind biases.

Biases are product of our thinking process.Thinking involves generation of a chain of thoughts that may or may not end up in a conclusion. But thinking itself is set in motion by external or internal stimuli. The external stimuli are usually our observation of the world around. However, our observation may be incorrect, resulting in what is called ‘systematic error’. Systematic errors are errors that are often introduced by an inaccuracy (as of observation or measurement) inherent in the system, therefore It may also refer to an error having a nonzero mean, so that its effect is not reduced when observations are averaged.

A systematic error in thinking might affect decisions and judgements that people make. When we think logically, our thoughts are connected with each other in an orderly way; however, biases override logical thinking when we are engaged with hard-coded emotional thoughts that may agree or contradict the line of thinking. These ‘loaded’ thoughts may originate when we are excited about something, get emotionally stuck, draw inferences and discover or make surprisingly new connections and associations. Conclusions drawn in this kind of thinking process are biases because we tend to find answers to anything on the basis of what we have experienced before. Thus, systematic errors create a recurrent pattern in our mind which ultimately results in producing biases.

If bias is personified, it may be imagined to be sitting in each person’s head, like a boss, with whom somehow we cannot disagree. why is that so? Could it be prevented? Could we make a decision against the strength of a bias? For an answer to that we will need to explore biases beyond what we know. Biases are the connections we make with the unknown without verifying. Do biases help us or restrict our thinking? May be this article itself is biased one for some people, or for others, it may shed some light on the factors never considered before.

Having a bias is a way of reducing our total amount of mental effort, known as cognitive load. Biases help us with quick snap decisions when we don’t need to waste our cognitive energy on trivial things. For instance, if one sees two parking slots, the nearest slot is selected without much thought, almost automatically. Imagine if one has to think which parking slot is better? What happens if one is selected over the other? Which one is safer? Which slot is under a tree? What if there is a thunderstorm and the tree falls on the car? etc. Till the time one thinks someone might have already taken that spot! In such simple situations, biases help to take instant decisions. However, how biases may be moulded in complex situations, when a split second decision can decide a major event? Consider for instance, while preparing for a penalty shot what might be going on in the player’s mind? The player puts the ball on the field and moves back quickly to take the shot. Right, center or left, which side will the keeper dive? The player decides one and moves towards the ball. If he sees the keeper moving in the same direction, in a split second he changes the decision of shooting to other and he scores. What if he starts calculating the whole process? Players often miss the shot as their prediction or judgment fails because they have conflicting thoughts due to systematic errors.

‘Split second’ decision making is very crucial to understand biases. What if that same player had seen many footages of the keeper and found a recurring event which he could use to his advantage, but when the event actually happens the keeper did not do anything the player expected. That’s where bias fails: Judgements are always dependent on what we have experienced. Over dependence on past experience sometimes might work against us. Therefore, considering other opinions might help make a right decision.

There are many types of biases. Here we shall discuss three namely, Optimism bias, Halo effect and Confirmation bias. We always think optimism is the answer to any negative event. Optimism bias always gives an optimistic answer to any question. However, Optimism is a mistaken belief that negative events won’t happen and positive will always occur inevitably. People tend to neglect a learning opportunity due to this bias. Over optimism prevents analysis of failures. For instance, in Aviation industry catastrophic events are registered, carefully recorded and shared with the world so that previous mistakes can be avoided. Sullenberger sunk the US airways flight 1549 in the Hudson river. If he had optimistic bias he would have tried to take the plane to the nearest runway with an unsuccessful attempt of landing. That would have been a catastrophic event. But he chose to overcome that bias with a rational and realistic approach and decided to land on the Hudson River, undoubtedly saving all lives of the crew and passengers. Yes, Sullenberger did learn from all accident events occurred before that great landing. Optimism is important, but what are we missing in the hindsight is the opportunity to learn from past events and grow.

The second type of bias is the halo effect. As defined in Wikipedia, halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties. It was named by psychologist Edward Thorndike in reference to a person being perceived as having a halo. People have different ‘halos’ and so different biases also. However, halo-bias prevents us from really knowing about the qualities of a person or a thing. We make judgements and stick to them every time we see that person or thing. For instance, when we dislike a person and need to explain why, we tend to exclaim “Amm, I don’t know!!, I just can’t stand him!”, that’s due to halo effect. It is almost impossible to avoid halo effect completely, because Halo effect fortifies one’s belief system and it is hard to overwrite it. We therefore need to overwrite it by learning not to rely heavily on ‘first impressions’ while making judgements about persons and thing.

Another important type of bias is ‘Confirmation bias’ which prevents a person accepting a contradictory view point. It is the knowledge and information one has gathered through experience that makes us think the way we do and we tend to look for ‘confirmation’ of what we believe. Hardly do we realise that the impressions we have gathered might be a result of systematic errors. The reluctance to change or modify our constructs is at the root of confirmation biases. If any challenges are posed to confirmation biased individual’s’ belief system, it is ‘ego’ which comes to play, preventing receptivity of any kind.

So far we have seen what are biases, how human mind creates various types of biases leading to problems. Heuristics is a correct mental shortcut which can avoid problems arising from biases. Heuristics are strategies derived from experiences of dealing with similar problems using readily accessible information. Unlike systematic error, the pattern of evaluation in heuristics is not flawed, but likely to yield desirable results. If the football player in the example cited earlier, scores a goal his judgement can be said to be heuristic, but if he fails it is due to a cognitive bias. A very thin dividing line indeed; but it has a flip side too: If a person makes a decision and it turns out to be correct, could it be called a heuristic judgement or a pure chance or luck? To judge if the decision made by the player was heuristic or not we need to determine if the footballer chose to kick the ball by correctly reading the situation and employing appropriate strategy based on verified experience. If he indeed did so, his evaluation of the situation became his muscle memory which made him score a goal. If otherwise, his evaluation must have been diluted with pressure, and he could be said to have relied on a biased decision and therefore failed to score. In other words, if the decision was made with systematic errors then the prevailing cognitive bias failed to deliver expected result.

Can we prevent our biases from influencing our decisions? There is no definite answer. People have their likes and dislikes, and they are free to make their own judgement choices. Persuasion might work but to what extent? And even if it does, it cannot uproot the whole concept of bias from our system. Biases are cognitive chunks which are hard-coded to make quick decisions. How to utilize them and convert those biases into heuristic decisions is entirely up to us.