What are Cognitive Biases?

Imagine you have a basket of fruits(apples and oranges), you reach out, take one at random, and eat it. Then you decide you’re hungry, and eat a few more. At that point you realize that you ate like 5 apples and only one orange, so you think that there’s way more apples in there. Makes sense.

Now you reach into a different basket, and grab a bunch of berries —5 strawberries and 10 blueberries. Should you think that there’s 2 times more blueberries here? Not really, because strawberries are bigger and heavier, so there’s more of them at the bottom of the basket than at the top, and your estimate would be biased.

This is called statistical bias. When your information is skewed, you form an inaccurate picture of the world. You could try to gather more data, but it wouldn’t help, because the way you gather it is fundamentally flawed.

But now imagine you reach into the third basket, and holy shit! — it’s dollar bills! You’re rich, you’ll finally be able to buy your own giraffe, you always wanted one.

Then you notice that some of the bills are $100, and other’s are only $5. But you think most of bills in the bag are probably $100, right? I mean you really wish they were, after all, giraffes are expensive, and you don’t want to settle for buying some lame capybara at this point.

In this case your expectation is incorrect not because you have wrong information, but because it’s influenced by a different kind of bias — a cognitive bias.

Because our brain does not have the time and energy to accurately process all the information it perceives, it takes mental shortcuts(called heuristics). Most of the time they are useful, but often they mislead us and result in systematic errors in our thinking — that is what cognitive biases are.

Just like statistical biases, cognitive biases distort your picture of the world, and when your method of learning about the world is flawed, gathering more information will not help to correct the error, in fact it can even worsen it.

These biases prevent us from having accurate beliefs, making good decisions, and achieving our goals. Sometimes they result in small mistakes(like losing some money by playing a lottery), sometimes mistakes are not so small(burning witches, holocaust, me watching Star Wars prequels).

Cognitive biases are not a result of being an unfair or a dishonest person, they are not committed by choice, they are a fundamental property of how humans think, they are flaws in the lens through which we look at the world. Being biased is like having a miscalibrated measuring instrument, except in this case the instrument is your brain.

So how do we fix it? Instead of relying on our natural hunches and intuitions, we can learn to recognize our mistakes, and then use superior tools(rationality and logic) to correct them.

A good place to start is to learn about the types of biases, fallacies, and the cognitive tools we can use to prevent them, which is what this series of posts is about.