As you read this sentence, your brain has just processed about 20 million bits of information. And yet, that astonishing number just isn’t enough to get you through your day. Consequently, your brain takes some shortcuts, including cognitive biases—when the brain fills in gaps of solid, reliable information with a lot of guesswork for efficiency’s sake. In Understanding Cognitive Biases, Dr. Alexander B. Swan uses examples from psychology experiments, history, politics, movies, TV, comics, social media, and more to illustrate dozens of cognitive biases that affect us all and shows you how to combat them for a clearer, more accurate view of the world.
Understanding Cognitive Biases
Alexander B. Swan is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Eureka College. He earned a PhD in Psychological and Brain Sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and received the Contribution to Excellence in Teaching Award while a graduate student there. His research focuses in part on how biases contribute to pseudoscientific beliefs and behaviors. He has published or copublished several articles, and he is the creator and host of the CinemaPsych Podcast, which reflects his love for combining film and psychology in his teaching.
01: Why We’re Blind to Our Own Biases
Discover why it’s so easy for us to find a blind spot in the reasoning of others, yet so difficult to recognize it in ourselves. Most of us believe our reasoning is always sound and logical. But the evidence shows our thinking is easily affected by even the most seemingly benign changes around us.
02: Things We Want to Be True: Confirmation Bias
Explore one of the most well-known and pervasive cognitive biases. We see the effects of confirmation bias in our media, politics, and much more—this tendency for us to only accept information that confirms our existing worldview and to actively reject information that opposes what we already believe to be true.
03: We See People In and Behind Everything
Learn about biases you have experienced since infancy: pareidolia and anthropomorphism, which are our brain’s tendency to find patterns—particularly faces—in everything around us, and to assign those patterns human characteristics. For most of our evolutionary history, these biases have kept us alive and procreating. But can they also lead us astray?
04: We Love It Because We Built It
Consider our tendency to place a high value on things we’ve built ourselves, referred to as the IKEA effect. The psychological concept of effort justification causes us to value our own efforts more than the job might warrant, as we attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance that a more honest evaluation could bring.
05: Why We Think Differently in Groups
Explore the new set of biases that can develop when individuals must make decisions in a group. Groupthink and group polarization can lead to dire consequences when there is little or no discussion of alternate choices—as evidenced in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
06: Learn Better with Cognitive Biases
Discover how to use three particular cognitive biases to your own advantage. The testing effect, the generation effect, and spacing effect—which come from our brain’s tendencies to use information in specific ways—can lead to improved information retention, better test scores, and a greater depth of knowledge at any stage of life.
07: Expectations Change Results: Observer Bias
See how observer bias can significantly affect the results of activities from scientific experiments to classroom teaching to the entertainment of “talking” animals. You’ll also learn how the double-blind experimental method was developed to specifically combat observer bias and reveal the crucial role it plays in public health.
08: Bias Boot Camp for Better Decisions
Discover the cognitive bias that can help you negotiate more successfully for that next car purchase. Your brain uses the anchoring heuristic—the tendency to use reference points in decision-making—for efficiency. Armed with this knowledge, you might want to forget everything you’ve learned previously about negotiating.
09: We Think Others’ Behaviors Are Their Fault
Was it really your fault that your car scraped the light pole in the parking lot? Discover what’s behind our familiar tendency to attribute negative outcomes of our own behaviors to “circumstances,” while attributing others’ behaviors to their traits and mental abilities. We’ve all done this; or could it be a uniquely Western bias?
10: How Memory Is Biased toward Misinformation
The misinformation effect reflects our tendency to trust our memories implicitly as truth. Actually, they are influenced by our emotions, expectations, culture, and what others have to say about them. Learn how this cognitive bias has negatively affected our criminal justice processes, and what’s being done about it.
11: How Fast Thinking Leads to a Great Fall
Evolutionary theory suggests the availability bias and the representativeness heuristic developed when we needed them in order to stay alive. But what about our very different modern lives today? Learn how these heuristics can cause us to assess danger incorrectly and make poor decisions as a result.
12: I Knew It All Along: Hindsight Bias
The hindsight bias leads us to believe we knew more than we actually did at the time of a specific event, especially one involving danger or tragedy. Learn how new information replaces old information in our memory, making it much more efficient but less accurate, and making us more susceptible to the hindsight bias.
13: Even Random Outcomes Lead to Bias
Given the human desire for control, it can be very disconcerting for us to accept that life is filled with random events. Discover how the gambler’s fallacy and the hot-hand fallacy biases lead us to see cause and effect where none exists—and the poor choices we can make as a result.
14: How Con Artists Exploit Our Biases
Discover how the Forer effect, also known as the Barnum effect, plays into our self-validation—a mental operation we all rely on to validate our self-worth. We all like to think we wouldn’t be swayed by Barnum statements. But Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos debacle and the $2 billion psychic-services industry say otherwise.
15: Stereotypes: See the Person, Not the Group
Could stereotypes be a form of cognitive bias? Absolutely, as we “efficiently” use the characteristics of an individual to represent an entire group. Learn how our brain’s natural tendency to look for patterns and categories can lead us to stereotype constantly—often creating great harm in the process—and how we can fight against this bias in ourselves.
16: Biases from Knowing Too Much or Too Little
Explore the Dunning-Kruger effect and the “curse of knowledge,” two biases that affect our accurate assessment of our abilities, including the ability to communicate knowledge to others. Unlike most other cognitive biases, culture plays a strong role in our susceptibility to the Dunning-Kruger effect; the effect disappears in collectivistic societies.
17: Is That Memory Mine or Someone Else’s?
Discover the cognitive bias called cryptomnesia, the tendency for a person to falsely identify an idea as one they developed themselves, as opposed to one they heard about from someone else, i.e., a memory. In this heuristic, our brain stores the idea but not the idea’s source—a shortcut that can easily get us in trouble.
18: I Believe, Therefore I Think: Belief Bias
Explore the sources and impacts of belief bias, the tendency to judge arguments on the believability of their conclusions rather than the whole argument. While we all tend to rely on this heuristic to some extent, by learning the technical requirements of a logical argument, we can better assess the validity of what we’re hearing or watching.
19: Why Emotional Peaks and Endings Matter
The peak-end rule is the cognitive bias that causes us to judge an experience based on how we felt at its most intense moments and at its end. Discover how this heuristic biases us against remembering the more nuanced aspects of any experience, and the effects this can have on our lives.
20: We Lie to Be Socially Desirable
Trace the evolutionary history of social desirability bias and how it can affect our lives and relationships in numerous ways. Our brain created this heuristic in response to our deep biological need to associate with other members of our species and to bond in various ways. But does it always work to our advantage, and how can we push past it when we want to?
21: Why Emotional Gaps Cause Trouble
The empathy gap bias is the tendency to disconnect or reduce empathy in situations where it would be expected or typically felt. Explore the cognitive steps required for empathy to occur, and what can happen when those processes don’t occur. What can keep us from understanding why other people might feel the way they feel?
22: Only Survivors Tell the Story
Discover the many ways in which survivorship bias affects our daily life. This tendency to focus only on people or objects that have moved past some defined selection process keeps us from understanding a more complex, fuller story. From important personal decisions to business, politics, and military history, the impacts of this cognitive bias can be seen all around us.
23: Reactance: You Can’t Watch This Lecture!
Delve into the reactance bias, our tendency to act in ways that are opposite to established rules, particularly, if we think those rules will reduce our freedom. This is a bias that operates mostly in the dark recesses of our subconscious and can be difficult to recognize until someone else specifically calls out the behavior.
24: Status Quo: The More Things Change …
Explore the status quo bias—our tendency to prefer the current state of affairs in our lives and the world around us—as well as the illusion of control, the false belief that we can influence things over which we actually have no control. Learn how the illusion of control can feed many other cognitive biases, and when the status quo bias might actually be our best rational choice.