The number of decisions we make and the complexity of the problems we solve sometimes exceeds the brain’s capacity. To respond faster and more efficiently to the multiple demands of daily life without having to reinvent the wheel, our brains streamline the decision-making process. How? By creating shortcuts. Called heuristics, these shortcuts actually are overlearned ways of choosing and using information. Heuristics help you make snap judgments. But what you save in time, you lose in accuracy. If your heuristics are flawed, your snap judgments will be, too.
Scientists have identified approximately 100 of these flawed heuristics and refer to them as cognitive biases. Unfortunately, these biases lead to haphazard fact-finding, shallow processing and hasty conclusions. They make you believe things that aren’t true and ignore things that are. Essentially, they're turning you into a lazy thinker.
Your biases and lazy thinking can have profound effects on the decisions you make, the actions you take and the results you obtain. You can train train yourself to avoid five of the most common cognitive biases. Here's how.
1. Question your beliefs.
When you accept ideas as logical and true because they sound believable, you commit belief bias. The more consistent with your beliefs an idea sounds, the less likely you are to look for proof. Strong, unchallenged beliefs determine which actions you will or won’t take to achieve your goals. For example, if you believe that most small businesses fail, you're unlikely to start one of your own. If you believe your product isn't worth paying for, you'll never make it available for sale. And if you believe your message isn't powerful or important enough, you'll never share it.
Ask: Which facts support your own beliefs?
2. Look for facts that disprove your point.
We like to be right. And to protect our desire to be right, we search for evidence that supports our ideas and ignore evidence that contradicts them. This is confirmation bias, and while it's a more scientific way of thinking than belief bias, it's still cheating. Your biased sampling makes you think you are right even when you are wrong. If you think your new assistant is incompetent, you'll keep looking for mistakes and problems. When performance-evaluation time rolls around, your data is a laundry list of shortcomings. So of course you believe you were right all along. Being willing to collect evidence that disproves your point not only helps you anticipate problems but also makes your point stronger.
Ask: What evidence are you collecting to disprove your point?
3. Estimate the odds of success.
Everyone can rattle off a factoid or two, but few people fully comprehend statistics -- and even fewer use them to make decisions. When you choose your course based on a specific event without considering that event's true probability, you're showing another bias: base rate neglect. Base rate is how often something occurs in a population, such as divorce rates, crime rates and college graduation rates.
Base rate neglect sidetracks you with glowing testimonials and makes you forget about what is statistically possible. If you're thinking about starting your own business but want to get an MBA first, it would help you to know the percentage of successful small-business owners who have an MBA. In a similar vein, if you were tempted to register for a program that promises to make you a millionaire, you'd want to research further than the quotes on the group's website.
Ask: What else do I need to know?
4. Consider you might be wrong.
Did you know ahead of time which team would win the World Series last year? How about which movie would get the Oscar? Which stocks would plummet in January? If you said yes to any of these questions, you're demonstrating hindsight bias. You claim you knew what was going to happen, but you make that claim after the event already has occurred. What's more, you believe it.
Hindsight bias gets even more twisted. Research shows people misremember their own predictions.
Let’s play for a moment: Without consulting Google or Siri or Cortana, do you know how old Mother Teresa was when she died? Take a guess and say the answer to yourself. If I called you a month from now to follow up, many of you would say you chose a number much closer to the correct answer than the true age you whispered just now. The most serious problem with hindsight bias is you fail to learn from your mistakes. And it's understandable, since this bias makes you forget you made any.
Ask: What have you been wrong about in the past?
5. Learn when to follow emotion and when to ignore it.
Could you make good decisions without your emotions? Probably, but in some cases it would require more work and take a lot longer. Emotions send quick, straightforward messages to the decision-making part of the brain, which in turn determines what to do with all that information. When emotion-laden messages are too loud, they influence your decisions. That's visceral bias.
Your feelings in the moment can distort your objectivity and influence how you judge a person or a situation. Positive emotions could make you overestimate your abilities, underestimate the risks, exaggerate potential gains and shift your priorities. Things that make us feel good seem more important, necessary or valuable. People who make us feel good seem more helpful and genuine. On the flip side, negative emotions could make you underestimate your abilities, overestimate the risks, exaggerate the consequences and ignore your priorities. We judge things that make us feel bad as unimportant, unnecessary or worthless.
Ask: How does this article make you feel?