Did you know that we make approximately 35,000 decisions each day? From deciding what food to eat to choosing what projects to prioritise at work – our lives are dominated by a number of choices we are presented with each day.
Given the fast-paced lives we lead, making decisions quickly can get exhausting and even overwhelming at times. Because of this, we may develop cognitive biases that affect our ability to make rational and well-informed decisions.
A cognitive bias is a type of thinking error that filters out information so that we can quickly come to a decision. Think about it: Wouldn’t it be exhausting to have to contemplate every aspect of a choice when making a decision?
It would probably take hours on end to come to a conclusion for even the simplest of choices. In order to reduce our effort or load, we may end up relying on our brain’s ability to create mental shortcuts so that we can work efficiently and quickly act on our decisions. This, however, does NOT mean that the decisions we make are always beneficial to us – it simply means that we’re able to avoid having to invest as much time and energy into making them. The downside here is that because of these biases, we are more likely to ignore relevant information that can save us from making irrational or unhelpful decisions at times.
These biases may have become more prominent during the ongoing pandemic that the world is grappling with. Life has changed in a very drastic way and so have our priorities. In the midst of all that’s going on, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of information. It can be hard to differentiate between credible and false information – and this in turn can influence the decisions we make. To help ourselves feel better, we might even follow certain guidelines or believe information that may actually be untrue. While cognitive biases may not typically be all that bad, in the current scenario, relying on them excessively can lead us to think poorly, make unhelpful decisions, and even experience negative emotions.
How do cognitive biases develop?
Take a look at some of the factors that make us more susceptible to using cognitive biases.
#1 We are overloaded with information
The fact of the matter is that we frequently are exposed to a high volume of information that, if not filtered out, would take us hours or days on end to process. As a result of this filtering, we may end up with a biased opinion about the situation.
#2 We try to make meaning
The world is full of complexities and in order to survive, we need to make some sense of what’s going on around us. Unfortunately, once we’ve filtered out information to meet our needs, we’re left to fill in the gaps and derive our own assumptions based on things we already know. This can prevent us from understanding a situation for what it truly is. All in all, when information gets filtered out, it strips away the true meaning of what’s going on – and this in turn can bias our opinions.
#3 Time is, almost always, limited
It is said that time waits for no one – and so, we are often faced with the task of making decisions in a very short period of time. Moreover, because of time constraints, we might even end up selecting the most recent option we can think of. This is what we call the recency effect – the tendency to recall the most recently presented information and to think of it as the best piece of information. Time constraints can even lead us to believe in information that is easier for us to remember – this tendency is known as the availability bias.
#4 Our memories tend to be biased
Cognitive biases might even be linked to the way memory works. Our brains have a tendency to pay more attention to – and remember – things that appear often or are out of the ordinary. Because of this, we might end up forming memories that don’t accurately reflect reality. On the flip side, we are more likely to overlook information that is expected or boring – and thus, we may not remember such information well. This can then get in the way of effective decision-making.
Now that we’ve understood why cognitive biases are so prevalent in our lives, it’s important to identify and better understand these biases so that you can take action to keep them in check.
Common cognitive biases that affect the way we think
There are several biases that can influence the direction of our decisions. Here are some common cognitive biases to watch out for:
The halo effect
When you read something posted by a celebrity or a seemingly credible source, are you more likely to believe that information? This, essentially, is the halo effect in action. According to the halo effect, the overall impression we have about a person influences how we judge other aspects of their personality and their actions. When we perceive someone as attractive or intelligent, we are more likely to pay heed to their advice – even if the information they are sharing may not be valid.
How this is playing out right now: There is a large volume of misinformation being spread about the virus. When someone you like shares some information about the pandemic with you, you are more likely to believe it to be true. The halo effect is also causing people to easily believe misinformation that is coming from religious leaders or spiritual gurus, even though they might not have the latest scientific knowledge.
Base rate fallacy
When it comes to predicting any event (for instance, the possibility of it raining today), there are always 2 categories of information. The first is the general probability that is based on research and scientific data (for instance, the probability of rains in India in June). The other is the specific probability related to the current event of today (maybe the clouds are clear and white). The base rate fallacy occurs when we give more weightage to specific information related to a current event and then end up ignoring or giving less weightage to actual historical facts (known as the base rates).
How this is playing out right now: Because of the ever-rising number of positive cases of the COVID-19 virus, many individuals believe that the chances of dying from the pandemic are higher than the chances of dying from other threats – like cancer or a car accident, for example. This is an example of the base rate fallacy at work – because in reality, in India, there is a 1 in 15 chance of dying from cancer, which is significantly higher than the chances of dying from the pandemic. Ignoring these base rates can actually lead to a lot of fear, anxiety and panic in context of the virus.
The idea here is that losses typically have a much larger psychological impact than equivalent gains. Due to this bias, we are more affected by the loss of something rather than a potential or real gain. As a result, we are more likely to do things to prevent a loss of some kind. This aversion can even lead us to pay more attention to negative information.
How this is playing out right now: In spite of the high recovery rate and positive recovery stories being passed around, a lot of people are focusing on the rising death toll. While this can, to some extent, prepare us to better deal with the pandemic, an excessive focus on loss aversion can make symptoms of anxiety and panic worse.
This bias arises out of a fear of limited supply of essential resources. The scarcity bias is the tendency to assume that if something is scarce, it is valuable. This also leads to the idea that if not consumed immediately, we might miss out on a great deal or opportunity of accessing these scarce resources.
How this is playing out right now: With shops being shut and grocery stores selling out, people are buying in bulk and stocking up on necessities. However, this is only creating a shortage of products and adding to the panic at this time.
This is the tendency for people to only pay attention to information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and perceptions. At the same time, the confirmation bias can lead us to reject information that doesn’t fit in with our existing beliefs. This can lead us to form inaccurate opinions and then act in ways that are unhelpful.
How this is playing out right now: If someone believes that masks are not a good preventative measure against the virus, they might try to look for data that suggests that masks are ineffective. They might even cite examples of people who contracted the virus despite wearing masks in an attempt to justify their viewpoints.
The planning fallacy
This is the tendency for people to underestimate the time it will take them to complete a task despite knowing that in the past, similar tasks generally took longer than expected. While having optimism and hope about the future is more important now than ever, staying in denial about when things will start settling down can only make it harder for us to deal with the crisis.
How this is playing out right now: Even though the curve of the virus has not flattened i.e the number of cases are still increasing day-by-day, a lot of people are planning to resume work in a few weeks or are making plans with friends hoping that things will get better soon. This can be dangerous, as following through on these plans can actually increase the risk of contracting the virus.
We all rely on our cognitive biases to some extent. While these shortcuts may help us at times, it’s important to remember that such biases can cloud our judgement – causing us to think irrationally or even make unhelpful or wrong decisions at times. These biases therefore put us in a difficult spot: we’re able to make quicker decisions but they’re not necessarily helping us. On the other hand, if we try to refrain from using these biases, decision-making gets a lot harder.
So what can you do to make better decisions?
Identify your biases
Now that you are aware of the different cognitive biases, you can work towards checking in with yourself. Recognise the thoughts that come to your mind about the ongoing pandemic. Do you find yourself thinking in an unhelpful way? Do some biases sound more relatable and familiar to you? By working towards identifying your own biases, you can take steps to challenge them and ultimately think in a more balanced way.
Challenge your biases
Once you become aware of your cognitive biases, you can think about whether they affect the decisions you make. If they do, make a conscious effort to challenge these biases. Seek information that contradicts your pre-existing beliefs. When making a decision, think about whether there is any information that you haven’t taken into account. You can also think about whether you might be deliberately ignoring certain information because it does not support your view. This can then prompt you to think more critically before coming to a conclusion.
Maintain a diary
Challenging your biases can be easier said than done, so it might be helpful to maintain a thought or belief journal. For instance, if you notice that you only seek information that confirms your pre-existing beliefs, write out your current belief and then next to that add an alternative point of view that disputes it. If you need more clarity, you can search the web and check out credible sources such as the WHO or CDC to understand if a piece of information you have received is true or not.
At times, you might struggle to make a decision because you may not have enough resources or experience. When decisions are difficult to make, it might help to get an outsider’s perspective on the matter. They might be able to help you look at things differently and may even challenge your existing beliefs. No two people think alike so getting someone else to evaluate your decisions can help you in making more informed decisions.
Consider the impact on others
More often than not, our decisions not only affect us but also the people in our lives. So the next time you have to make a decision, think about how the outcome is going to affect those around you. You can even write out the pros and cons of making this decision on a piece of paper. This can help put things into perspective and can encourage you to put in the effort to think in a more rational manner.
Reflect on the past
Look back on decisions you’ve made in the past. Ask yourself: Have I ever been in a similar situation before? What influenced me to make that decision? Was the outcome positive or negative? When you take a moment to think about what went down in the past, it can help you put things into perspective in the present. This way, you can find what worked previously and even learn from any mistakes you might have made.
While you may not be able to completely eradicate your cognitive biases, you can prevent them from negatively influencing the decisions you make. It might take some time for you to bring about a change, but with the right strategies in place, you will eventually master the ability to make well-informed decisions and act in your best interests during this pandemic.
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