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Cognitive biases: challenging the way we think

02 August 2019 - By Paul Sills

Cognitive biases can be used to explain why good people make bad decisions. It is therefore important that we adopt strategies in our decision-making, recognising the positive and negative part cognitive biases play in our lives in order to become better educated and well rounded thinkers.

Why do good people make bad decisions?

The mental shortcuts created by cognitive biases often trip us up and result in irrational decisions. While we often believe that we are making educated, well thought-out decisions, the biases that subconsciously interrupt our judgement processes mean that our decisions are not made as objectively as they could be. The information that our brains filter and prioritise causes us to leap to conclusions, compressing the time and awareness necessary to identify and evaluate all possible alternatives.

A giraffe

As a result of cognitive biases, the information selected and stored through our cognitive processes may not necessarily be correct or legitimate. Facts and emotions which enhance our decisions are often inaccurate representations in the context of the situation at hand because they are warped by cognitive biases that colour our decisions with personal motivations. In addition, if we are confronted with too much information, our brain’s inability to process it all can result in poor decision-making.

How we appear in the eyes of others also contributes to why good people make bad decisions. Our self-image is often so important to us that we make quick, irrational decisions in order to appear confident and assertive. We tend to attribute asking for help or slow decision making with weakness, so making quicker decisions is thought to reflect strength and control. This idea stems from a human desire for immediate gratification. The need to feel a sense of accomplishment can outweigh the need to evaluate whether or not our decisions are ethical, which can lead to mistakes in our judgement.

How to improve our decision-making process

Availability

To improve our decision-making process, we must be open to the ideas and opinions of others while balancing this against our own preconceptions. The cognitive biases previously focused on in each article in this series have shown a divide between an overconfidence in our own instincts as well as an overconfidence in the views of other people. Our brains cling to one bias or another – causing our decisions to be irrational and poorly thought out.

When making judgements, we must seek to include outside knowledge in our thought processes – not being afraid to challenge our preconceptions or ask for advice. Our prejudgements and the judgements of others can coexist if we adequately measure the merits of both. While placing trust in our instincts, it is important that we also surround ourselves with a diverse range of people who can offer us alternative ways of thinking as well as challenging our own ideas. This is a helpful way of improving our ethical decision-making process as we can gain a wide variety of opinions from a variety of cultural, economic and social backgrounds.

Environment

We are susceptible to cognitive biases when we are fatigued, stressed or multi-tasking. If possible, do not rush into making decisions. Ensure that you are in the right headspace to take your decision-making process seriously. Failure to do so can result in unethical decisions based on the laziness of the mind resorting to cognitive biases instead of properly evaluating the decision at hand. Ensure that when making decisions, you are taking into consideration your internal environment. A tool to ensure that you are not leaping into irrational decisions as a result of your environment is HALT: If you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, do not make that decision.

An interesting study was carried out by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman to emphasise the effect our environments/emotional states have on our wellbeing. This experiment focused on people making calls in a phone booth. In the first trial group, a coin (enough to make a phone call) was placed in the phone booth so the subject would get a free phone call. The second trial group did not find any money in the booth – thus paying for their own call.

Each time a person would leave the phone booth an accident would be staged – someone would drop some papers on the path or fall over. If there was no coin in the phone booth only 4% stopped and helped the person. This is in stark contrast to the 88% who found the coin stopping to help. These findings indicate the importance of our environment and emotional states when making decisions – the better the mood the more ethical decisions we are prepared to make.

Reflection

Evaluate the lens you are making your decisions through. Take time to step back and ask yourself how you came to that conclusion. What influenced your decision? If you had not been influenced would your decision have been made differently? Being aware of the cognitive biases that can affect our decisions is a big step toward minimising their effects. The key is to slow down your thinking.

Daniel Kahneman encourages us to ask three questions to minimise the impact of cognitive biases in decision-making:

  • Is there any reason to suspect that the decisions being made are influenced by self-interest, overconfidence or attachment to past experiences? Realistically, it is near impossible not to be influenced by at least one of the above.
  • Has the person making the decision “fallen in love” with it? A decision is not usually made without the person being fully behind it.
  • Were there dissenting opinions within the decision-making process?

Relational Impact

Ensure that you ask yourself who will be affected (or not) by your decision. Evaluating the impact your decision will have on other people helps to clarify whether you are making an ethical judgement.

Awareness

Recognising that you do demonstrate cognitive biases in your decision-making is key to improving your ethical decision-making process. Once we accept that our decisions are affected by biases then we are able to work towards minimising their effects on our judgements.

Conclusion

This series has evaluated various cognitive biases and their impact on our thinking.

It is crucial that we evaluate and recognise potential cognitive biases in our decision-making when making ethical decisions. Once we are able to establish the potential biases which affect our decisions we are able to work through them – ensuring that our judgements are a result of objective and well-rounded thinking.

The cognitive biases focused on throughout the series are only a few of the many biases that exist within our cognitive processes. As well as improving our ethical decision-making, recognition of cognitive biases promotes a wider acceptance of different cultures, beliefs, and identities.

When we identify our own biases, we open ourselves up to more diverse ways of seeing the world. Cognitive biases are a source of protection and often common sense, but balancing those instincts with an ability to be open to different perspectives and ideas will produce even better outcomes.

The more we are open to learning and recognising our cognitive biases, the better decision-makers we will become. French Philosopher Henri Bergson famously said: “the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend”.

We enrich our lives and understanding of the world when we open our minds to different perspectives and move away from potential biases. When making decisions, be humble, be prepared to accept your mistakes and seek out new perspectives.


Paul Sills paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz is an Auckland barrister and mediator, specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member. This is the fourth article in a series about Cognitive Biases. Read part one, part two and part three.

Last updated on the 2nd August 2019