Cognitive bias and how people think.

The following was a lunchtime lightning talk in October 2018. It was inspired by (and borrows from) two main influences: Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, and Buster Benson’s article ‘Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet’.

Cognitive bias is described as: “a repeating, or basic misstep in thinking, assessing, recollecting, or other cognitive processes … a pattern of deviation from standards in judgment, whereby inferences may be created unreasonably.”

There are hundreds of cognitive biases and ways they affect our behaviour — but I’m interested in why they affect us.

Every day we process a LOT of information. We make lots of decisions, and we communicate with others in many different ways. Some of that is done consciously and deliberately, but a huge majority of it is subconscious.

Almost by definition, we often don’t feel we have control over what we do subconsciously. It’s worrying to think that most of what we do, we don’t have control over! We’d like to think that our subconscious would ‘do. the. right. thing.’. But that’s probably rather misguided — often what we do can appear quite irrational to others, or even to ourselves some time later.

So why does our subconscious even do most of the work?

It’s quicker. Our conscious brains by comparison are really slow! If we had to do everything consciously, we’d get almost nothing done, so we save only the most critical decisions for the conscious brain to deal with.

Our subconscious runs as a background process, analyzing input from our body and our environment, dealing automatically with ‘normal’ situations, whilst looking for the ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ and alerting the conscious brain when something unusual happens.

There’s a few problems that the subconscious has to manage with.

1) Firstly, there’s too much information in the world.

Estimates vary wildly for the number of bits of information the brain processes — millions, billions, trillions. Whatever it is, it’s too much! We subconsciously have to filter out nearly all of it. We use lots of different tricks to do that, and pick out the useful stuff. The problem is those tricks vary for different people at different times, so we all tend to behave differently.

When there’s too much information, people are biased by change and things that stand out, such as relating to recent events and thoughts, repetition, mood, humour, negativity.

We’re often biased by what we perceive as flaws, including differences to what we believe ourselves. Confirmation bias is an example. I love the joke, that after I first heard about confirmation bias, I started seeing it everywhere!

2) Secondly, there’s a lot of confusion or ambiguity in the world.

There’s very often not enough meaning or context in the information we get. We subconsciously try and fill in those gaps, typically with stuff we already know (or think we know).

When there’s not enough meaning, people are biased by their previous experiences, filling in gaps with fake stories and assumptions. Our subconscious is pretty rubbish at maths — it substitutes insufficient numbers, simplifies probabilities, underestimates likelihoods.

We form invalid arguments, make generalizations, substitute related attributes, and home in on patterns that we think exist — but may not really. And we impose on others what we think or believe ourselves. All in an effort to make things easier to think about.

3) Thirdly, we’re often constrained by time and information.

The conscious brain can often feel struck by a kind of decision paralysis.

Subconsciously we need to act fast, make snap decisions, simulate the future to make predictions. We adapt on the fly applying new insights to things already happening.

When we need to act fast people are biased by a sense of overconfidence, there’s a focus on short term impact or gratification rather than long term gains. We gravitate towards things we’ve already invested in, preferring lower risk options, reversible decisions, and simpler explanations than is really the case. We’d rather do the quick simple thing than the important complicated thing.

4) Finally, we can’t remember everything.

The memory capacity of our brain (certainly my brain) is limited, so we subconsciously decide what to keep and what to forget. We prefer generalizations over specifics because generalizations take up less space and can be applied over and again in apparently similar situations.

When there’s lots of detail we have to choose what’s important or what stands out to us — at that time. And of course, what we do end up keeping affects the knowledge we have about ‘the world’. That affects how we deal with the first problem of too much information. And it affects how we fill in the gaps with the second problem of not enough meaning.

When we can’t record everything, people are biased by false memories, generalizations and stereotypes, prejudices, and key representative moments of an experience.

It all makes you wonder how we do anything right doesn’t it!?

But biases aren’t all bad.

They are workarounds catering for our basic human processing limitations. They are adaptations or life hacks that help us to make sense of, and deal with the world. They are really great when speed is more important than precision.

The different ways in which we are all biased at any one time is what makes us different, but more importantly it’s what drives different people to see, understand, or react quite differently in the same situation, or given the same information. It’s what gives us our diversity, and what can help groups work better than individuals.

If there’s one thing you take away from this talk…

…it should be an understanding and an acceptance that we are all permanently biased! Carry with you an increased awareness of the existence and the effect of different biases. Recognize why people behave differently. Use that to notice your own biases more often.

Think about the products we make and the services we provide. When you next come across someone behaving apparently irrationally, have a think about their perspectives. Wonder about what’s going on in their head. How is their subconscious being biased by their own experiences? How might that result in rational actions within their own realm of thinking. Why might you find it irrational?

I sometimes like to take a moment to think about which of the four problems might have resulted in a situation. I wonder if there’s ways I can improve my subconscious.

  • Do I need better information filters to figure out the signal from the noise.
  • Do I need more varied processes to fill in gaps in my information.
  • Do I need more practice or more iterative processes to help reach better decisions.
  • Do I need better ways to remember broader or more useful information for the future.

I don’t expect anything drastic, just hoping for little ways to make marginal gains.

Marginal gains biased toward better brains.