Cognitive Biases: A Crash Course for the Millennial Mind If you think you're in full control of your mind, think again. Here are just a few mental quirks that can hold you back.

By Sam McRoberts

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Cognitive biases are not inherently generational; that is to say, people of one generation aren't implicitly more likely to experience a cognitive bias than another. This is because cognitive biases are the natural byproducts of how our brains function and are counterproductive features of thought patterns that might otherwise be useful.

For example, the "bandwagon effect" that makes us more likely to believe something that the people around us believe is just an unfortunate consequence of being wired to function socially within a group context.

That being said, some generations are more vulnerable to cognitive biases in specific areas of their lives, due to generational stereotypes or preexisting conditions. Accordingly, there are some cognitive biases that are especially dangerous for millennials -- but fortunately, if you're able to recognize and understand them, you can take specific measures to overcome them.

Confirmation bias.

Is it a stereotype that millennials love social media? Not exactly; 88 percent of millennials get news from Facebook on a regular basis, and 57 percent of them get news from it at least once a day. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and in fact, it can be advantageous; social media is what connects us together, and it's one of the fastest ways to get new information.

Related: An Updated List of Facebook's Algorithm Changes

Here's the problem. Facebook and other social media platforms use news-feed algorithms to generate news-feed items it knows you want to see. It looks at past articles you've liked or reacted to, as well as articles shared by your in-groups, and it specifically curates articles that it thinks you're going to like. This results in a kind of "echo chamber," where you're far more likely to see stories that already align with your preconceived notions and expectations than articles that challenge your perspectives.

This is especially harmful because of confirmation bias, which makes us unfairly value information that seems to prove concepts we already believe. Accordingly, it's becoming more important than ever for millennials to question their assumptions, challenge their beliefs, and talk to people they disagree with -- intentionally -- to gain some new perspectives.

Self-serving bias.

Millennials often get grief for being self-entitled, or narcissistic. While many of those accusations are overstated, there is some evidence that millennials are more self-centered than their older generational counterparts when they were the same age. This self-centeredness can be a strength in some ways; it encourages self-reliance and independence. However, it also makes millennials especially vulnerable to self-serving bias.

Self-serving bias is a trap in thinking that makes us emphasize information that makes us ascribe our successes to our own abilities and skills, but ascribe failure to factors beyond our control. Anecdotally, you could see this bias come in to play if you hear one millennial homeowner talk about how they've achieved some degree of financial success due to their own hard work, and another millennial blame their inability to buy a home on a housing market that was destroyed before they got there.

Obviously, this bias affects more than just millennials; it's probably affected everyone at some point. But millennials need to be especially careful navigating it, since they may be more vulnerable to self-esteem related biases.

Survivorship bias.

Millennials are a diverse group in terms of professional success. While there are many stories of millennial entrepreneurs achieving blockbuster success, we also know that millennial unemployment is in more than double the national average, at 12.7 percent (the last statistic on record from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Accordingly, we have many "unsuccessful" millennials looking to the successful ones as role models. This seems like a good thing, but it leaves you vulnerable to something called survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is essentially a sampling error; looking only at the successful members of a given group robs you of critical information about the members who failed.

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A famous example of this comes from statistician Abraham Wald, who in World War II recommended putting extra armor on planes in locations where surviving crafts returning from battle had no bullet holes. This seemed counterintuitive; wouldn't it make more sense to harden the areas that were being hit? In reality, the bullet holes proved the crafts could withstand shots in these locations and still survive. So, while they would never have information from the fallen planes to indicate exactly where "fatal" bullets struck, the bullet holes told them precisely where they were not, making the not-shot places where the fatal spots had to be.

For millennials, this means examining large sections of the population before making assumptions about what constitutes success or failure in this increasingly strange and demanding modern economy.

Other biases.

I've chosen to highlight just a few of the most important biases for millennials to consider, due to circumstances specific to millennials, but they represent just the tip of the iceberg. You may also be interested in researching and learning about some of these biases:

  • The availability heuristic, another sampling error that makes you overestimate the value of information in front of you, such as personal anecdotes.
  • Anchoring bias, which makes you fixated on the first piece of information you hear, like the first number thrown out in a salary negotiation.
  • Conservatism bias, which makes people value preexisting information over new information.
  • Pro-innovation bias, which ignores the flaws of innovation for the sake of progress.
  • Zero-risk bias, which makes us favor the most certain outcomes -- even if they aren't statistically the best choices.

There is no cognitive bias that is, by itself, unconquerable. Learning to recognize these biases and change your thinking to accommodate them may be difficult, but it's certainly possible. Start paying attention to how these biases are affecting your life and career decisions, and always second-guess yourself; in many cases, your first reaction is just the byproduct of a flawed, evolutionarily developed brain.

Related: Entrepreneurs: Beware of the Marginal Thinking Trap

If you want to dig deeper into cognitive biases and related areas of psychology and self-improvement, I maintain an ever-expanding list of books over here that can help.
Sam McRoberts

CEO of VUDU Marketing, Author of Screw the Zoo

Sam McRoberts is the CEO of VUDU Marketing, and author of Screw the Zoo and SEO Simplified.

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