What could you possibly teach to those who know it all?! – The risks of cognitive biases

Back in 1972, researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced the concept of cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting the complex world around them. Even though extremely hard to detect in oneself, everyone exhibits cognitive biases that affect the decisions (from small innocuous choices to life-changing decisions) and judgments they make. Despite their adaptive value by allowing you to “think fast, act faster!”, those biases, the many already identified plus the countless that are yet to be brought to light, shape judgments and affect decision-making in a wide range of areas, putting you at risk of becoming an easy marketing victim, a believer of conspiracy-theories, a racist or simply…too full of yourself.

Time to make a little self-assessment? Here are a few symptoms that may help you diagnose some over-activity of cognitive biases in your thought process:

  • Only paying attention to stories that confirm what “you already knew!” (aka the Confirmation bias – favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform).
  • Assuming that everyone else shares your opinions or beliefs (aka the False consensus effect – the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you).
  • Learning a little about a topic and then assuming you know all there is to know about it (aka the Illusion of Explanatory depth – the tendency to believe that one understands a topic much better than one actually does).
  • Reading all the above and smiling as none of it applies to you (aka the Bias Blind Spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in oneself).

Cognitive biases are a high-yield topic in the Psychology degree, with an entire subject dedicated to the nuances of the thought process that lasts a whole semester. Many books have been written about it, and research hasn’t stopped adding new information to what was already known. But why is this so important? What difference does it make to know how our brain can manipulate and be manipulated, can fool and be fooled, can be in control or just convinced to be in control?

I believe that we are ever-learners. That we can always know more, dig in deeper, upgrade ourselves. But to be able to learn, we need to make up space to accommodate novelty. We need to be patient, as novelty won’t always be the quieter neighbour, nor the easiest neighbour to deal with… as a matter of fact, novelty tends to be wild, to challenge and directly confront our old convictions… to be the annoying teenager at the family dinner table. And this does not mean it is wrong. Not everything that shakes your old reality is necessarily wrong. By being aware of your own limitations, by knowing exactly by which means your brain will try to trick you, you may be able to stop it. And learn.

Open yourself to new visions of the same world you though had no other possible angle to be seen.