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Cognitive biases: challenging the way we think

02 August 2019 - By Paul Sills

Part three

❝ Envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide ❞ — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The bandwagon effect, overconfidence, optimism and negativity biases are further “everyday” cognitive biases that subconsciously influence our personal and professional decision-making.

The bandwagon effect

This cognitive bias refers to the tendency for people to adopt certain attitudes, behaviours or decision-making processes purely because everyone else is doing it. Despite this not necessarily aligning with their own beliefs, a person will follow the actions of someone else without seeking proper guidance, believing that it must be correct/legitimate solely due to its commonality.


The bandwagon effect is particularly prevalent in today’s society through the likes of Trip Advisor, Amazon and other customer reviewed websites. This bias can be used to help explain social trends such as the popularity of brands like Apple, as well as having an influence on politics. Through paying attention to the comments and experiences of others, we often base our own decisions upon these; therefore bias occurs.

The implications of the bandwagon effect mean we are often too afraid to branch out on our own. Our peers’ choices influence us so we follow their path believing that it is the right one if someone else has taken it first.

Our desires for success and social acceptance can be used to explain the presence of the bandwagon effect in our lives. In today’s world we are constantly striving to be on the ‘winning side’, having strong aspirations to be accepted and respected by our society. Therefore, making decisions which could potentially threaten our self-image is a daunting task. It is safer to follow a decision made by someone else which has appeared to work for them. As a result of this, the bandwagon effect means that we rarely explore options outside of our comfort zone, we don’t explore the merits and values of each case individually – rather, we follow those before us.

The bandwagon effect is a difficult bias to avoid. To work toward individualising our decision-making, it is important that we explore all the alternatives and options before making a choice purely because someone else did. What worked for someone in one circumstance may not necessarily work for you – therefore it is important that we treat each decision individually, not placing too much reliance upon others.

At the same time, the opinions and previous actions of others should not be disregarded totally. People’s past experiences can be used to warn us against potentially dangerous situations. Therefore, the bandwagon effect can be likened to that of a survival tool.

Social media is an obvious and significant issue for the bandwagon effect: the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc all play a part in how we think and act. Because we see so much of each other’s lives online, there is a flow on effect that what we see shapes the decisions we make. Social media is a key driving force behind the ‘sheep mentality’ that the bandwagon effect encompasses.

Overconfidence bias

The overconfidence bias refers to our tendency to overestimate our abilities and judgements when performing a task.

When making decisions, confidence is an admirable characteristic – a sign of strength, control and adequate leadership. At the same time, overconfidence can also result in ignorant decision-making, due to an unwillingness to branch out and investigate beyond our own preconceptions. A consequence of the overconfidence bias includes a strong belief that our opinion is superior, displaying an inability to see the potential risks or negative aspects of our decisions.

Optimisim bias

This form of cognitive bias encompasses the idea that people overestimate the probability of positive events, ignoring any possibility of negative incidents occurring. Optimism bias can also be defined as the difference between our expectation and the outcome. Arguably, this cognitive bias is one of the most powerful due to it being so ubiquitous; there is evidence of its presence in all professions/areas of life. This bias therefore relates to our sense of overconfidence and trust in our own decision-making process – often displaying an unwillingness to explore both the possible positive and negative outcomes of our judgement.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot has determined that 80% of us experience optimism bias. In her own words, “we are more optimistic than realistic, and we’re oblivious about it”. Tali Sharot has evaluated whether or not optimism bias is healthy and has found that some believe it is better to have low expectations and then be pleasantly surprised if things work out. In response to this, Ms Sharot has negated this idea based on three reasons:

Interpretation matters: People with high expectations always feel better. For example, an optimist who gets a poor result in an exam will blame the exam; they’ll do well next time. Whereas pessimists who do well consider this a fluke.

Anticipation is satisfying: The thrill of the wait matters. People prefer to have something to look forward to – thus – those who display the optimism bias are excited about what is to come.

Optimism changes reality: If you expect to do well, you will put in more effort.

When making decisions, the optimism bias can be fulfilling as it encourages hope and promotes a successful mentality. However, it is important to recognise the pitfalls of this bias in order to ensure our decision-making process is realistic – taking on board both the pros and cons of the decision at hand.

The optimism bias can cause individuals to underestimate the realistic costs of decisions, leading to poor judgements. Failure to acknowledge the risks involved in making decisions can lead to disastrous outcomes. Everyday examples include not wearing a seatbelt and failing to apply sunscreen. Näive thinking could result in unethical decision making if we only base our decision-making upon possible positive outcomes.

Negativity bias

Here we see more weight given to negative outcomes when making decisions than positive ones. We find it difficult to let go of negative experiences, allowing these to overshadow the good.

From an evolutionary standpoint, survival depended on our ancestor’s negativity bias. Being alert and responding quickly to potential threats, as well as being cautious of the dangers of their environment, meant the negativity bias was key to survival. This is still applicable today where the negativity bias protects us from making decisions which could potentially bring us harm or loss.

It is possible to change the brain’s negativity bias. This is done through training our brains to give more weight to positive thoughts. We must become more attuned to emotions such as happiness, pride and contentment. To do this, science has shown that we must hold our focus on a positive experience for at least 10-20 seconds – this should ensure that it can be stored in our long term memories.

When making judgements, it is important that we find the medium between the negative and positive biases. Being optimistic while at the same time recognising the potential risks and negative aspects involved, would mean more balanced and accurate decisions.

The bandwagon effect and the overconfidence, optimism and negativity biases all contribute to our daily decision-making. While they can be used to steer us in the right direction, it is important that we recognise the ways in which these cognitive biases limit the full potential of our judgements. Recognising this allows us to work toward making more informed and well rounded decisions.

In the concluding article in this series we will look at practices we can put in place to counteract these biases in our decision-making.

❝ It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. ❞ — Mark Twain

Paul Sills is an Auckland barrister and mediator, specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member. This is the first article in a series about Cognitive Biases. Read part onepart two and part four.

Last updated on the 2nd August 2019