How Our Cognitive Biases Can Hinder Us, But Also Help Us

06/04/2016 14:20 | Updated 06 April 2016

The best thing I learnt while I was studying Psychology was about all of our cognitive biases. There are loads of them. These 'mental shortcuts' operate mainly unconsciously, and, although the word 'bias' pings with negative connotations, they actually have a very important function; they allow us not to have to process every single thing in our daily lives. Our brains are always (maybe not always very obviously) working in our favour, choosing the easiest route, simplifying, interpreting, giving us as little thinking or processing to do as possible. Cognitive biases help us make quick decisions and are vital in situations when we might be under threat. We live our lives thinking we are being rational and objective and making informed choices, but chances of that being true are actually very slim.

Although they are trying to help us, cognitive biases can be very unhelpful. Awareness of what might be operating under the surface can help us to know ourselves and relate to each other in a more mindful and productive way. Cognitive Bias is a massive area in Psychology so this overview is only going to barely skim the surface. They are easily google-able though and fascinating to learn about.

Confirmation Bias

This one means that we conveniently overlook or disregard evidence that contradicts our argument or opinion, and we only seem to stumble across evidence that supports it. We also place more importance on the supportive evidence and find flaws in or dismiss the contradictory evidence. Obviously this can impair our ability to be objective and lead to biased conclusions.

Attribution Error

Instead of being at ease with simply not knowing, our brains try to have us come to some conclusion, hence the expression 'that must be it', said in a tone of satisfaction after someone has assessed every nook and cranny of a person's behaviour and decided on some personality aspect as the cause. It must be their 'abandonment issues' or it must be 'because he's shy', and so on. We attribute a personality reason for someone's behaviour, without having any idea whether we are right or not. Sometimes we are, but mostly we are not. An example is deciding your new housemate is lazy because he lounged on the couch all evening when it could be a number of situational attributions such as him being tired/needing a break/just had an argument/had a long day/not in the mood to talk, and so on. Basically we overplay personality attributes and underplay situational ones. However, when it comes to ourselves, we are more likely to blame situational attributes and not consider personality attributes.

The Bandwagon Effect

This is when we believe something is valid because many people think it's true. If we are presented with an alternative belief, for example in a meeting, and we are the only person who has a different view, we are much more likely to change our minds and adopt a new belief than if it was one person trying to persuade us.

The Bystander Effect

We all like to think that we would be the exception to the rule and would help a crime or accident victim regardless of the presence of others, but we are actually far more likely to be a passive 'bystander' when others are present. In fact, the more people present, the higher the likelihood that we will stand by. We have two tasks in a crisis; first to assess the situation as an emergency, and second, to assess if we have the expertise to help. The less that people react, the less likely we will consider it as an emergency, and the more people who are present increases the likelihood that someone else is more capable of helping than you. So we just stand there and observe, minimising the event, and minimising our capabilities.


This is when we attribute personality traits, behaviour and characteristics to a group of people whom we do not know. Stereotypes helps us make fast decisions and assess situations quickly, but are not always helpful as they can lead to false assumptions, expectations and generalisations, which can impact on how we behave around and interact with the people in the group.

The Halo Effect

This is like the ripple effect of a stone hitting water. If we perceive someone as friendly, we might also think they are clever, and probably also assume they are successful at life. If someone is funny, they are also like-able, and probably kind too. We are more likely to think attractive people are intelligent, and have positive personality aspects.

The opposite also works; if someone is unfriendly or unattractive, we may judge them as being not so clever and maybe not very like-able. This one is a very tricky one to be aware of, but when we catch ourselves noticing something about someone, like their attractiveness, it might be a good idea to slow down our thought process and see what happens next. Do we go on to assume they're intelligent or kind? What do our thoughts go?

Anchoring Bias

This means that we place a metaphorical anchor on the first piece of information about something we hear. So we might hear from one person that the new colleague is rude and unfriendly, and two hours later hear from another colleague that he is funny and kind. We are more likely to hold onto the first piece of information and remain skeptical about the second piece.

The Optimism/Negativity Bias

Life, when we look back on it, is generally a series of ups and downs. Some patches have more hills and some have more dips, but overall it's probably pretty evened out. Despite this knowledge, our brains are bizarrely optimistic. We imagine our shiny future, our brilliant future partners from whom we will never get divorced, our attractive, kind and funny offspring, our great neighbourhoods, the BBQs we will host despite having never hosted one in our lives so far, how we will definitely not still have social anxiety by the time we reach 30, and so on. We truly believe that our chances of experiencing unpleasant life moments are much slimmer than the chances of having wonderful life experiences, which is where the 'it won't happen to me' expression comes from.

It's an error to think in this way. It can lead to us not doing any necessary preparation for potential negative life events, and taking health or other risks. We have no idea what life has in store for us, all we can do is do the best we can with what we have right now. The good thing about this bias is that we are more likely to be happy because of of it! We are going to feel happier in ourselves if we are anticipating our future success than if we are ruminating about our dissatisfying attempt at a career and likelihood of the pattern continuing. It also aids us in having the motivation to meet our goals. If we think we will meet the partner of our dreams this year we are far more likely to meet him or her than if we go on the evidence of the previous four years single-hood and project that into the future.

The other side of this coin is the Negativity Bias, which sadly does exactly the opposite. When we think about the future we might imagine a non - changing situation; 'I'm going to be single forever!', or a sad lonely life, no BBQs, no friends over, same job for the rest of your life, no promotions or holidays or whatever else you deem worthy of others but not of yourself. We see only the previous dips, use only the negative evidence from the past to inform our present and future, and will be lacking in self esteem, confidence, happiness, and motivation. If we catch ourselves doing this it is very important that we slow it down, and take a look at what evidence we are using for a certain belief or thought, and find contradictory evidence. It is there, I promise, and you need to find it to help build your resilience and awareness of your strengths and abilities.

It might not be so pleasant to realise that we are under the excessive influence of these (and many more) brain controllers but actually, it's okay. Once we are aware that they exist, and that they are trying to help us navigate life, we can choose different behaviour, if and when we want. Being self-compassionate and non-judgmental is key. If we can stay a little bit curious, about our own and other's internal and external experiences, we could find that we have a much richer experience of our world.