Cognitive Bias Series: Taming the Elves in Our Brains

A brain: cognitive bias series

By Angela Noel

November 16, 2017

Certain four-letter words get a lot of attention. I won’t write them here because you already know what I’m talking about. These words have power. Some studies have shown that cussing actually tempers the pain response in the brain. Preliminary theories tell us swear words trigger a “fight” response, helping the body dull sensations of pain.

But I want to talk about a different four-letter word: bias. The word itself won’t lesson pain. Its power comes from describing a whole host of unconscious actions governing our responses to all kinds of sensations and experiences. Saying the word out loud won’t increase or decrease pain, but bias operating in our lives just might.

We often use the term bias interchangeably with prejudice, meaning to be unfairly and irrationally swayed in one direction or another without evidence or experience. But the hundreds of recognized cognitive biases leading well-intentioned individuals into error every day are more nuanced.

The word bias comes from old French. Originally, it meant “oblique line.” People in both the fashion or the food industry know the phrase, “to cut on the bias.” Essentially, this means to cut fabric or food at an angle. Cutting on the bias offers fabric, for example, different properties of stretch than cutting “with the grain” would. More difficult to work with, an angled cut also requires additional fabric to realize the finished product.

Similarly, when bias invades our brains without our conscious knowledge, we operate from an angled or skewed perception. Instead of straightforward, rational thought, our brains take shortcuts (called “heuristics”). These heuristics result in errors in judgment. These errors are cognitive biases. When we use these mental “easy buttons,” we save time in the short term, but risk significant cost. Not all mental shortcuts prove detrimental–we need them, as Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founder of the discipline of behavioral economics, discusses at length in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. But we do ourselves and others a disservice by allowing biases to act unchecked and unacknowledged by our conscious selves.

But, just like cutting on the bias offers flexibility and visual appeal for the creations of clothing designers and chefs, cognitive biases have benefits, too.

By understanding how they work, we can ease social situations, mentor others more effectively, and contribute more at work and at home. In short, cognitive biases aren’t evil. They’re like rocks in the woods. We can use those rocks to build homes or line trails. Or we can use them as weapons to hurt others or trip on them ourselves. It’s up to us.

Cognitive Bias Codex
An excellent graphic of the complex and wonderful world of cognitive bias.

The first step towards making more conscious choices begins with understanding and awareness of cognitive bias in our lives. Though Kahneman doesn’t believe we can ultimately overcome most biases, knowledge at least, brings light to the darkness. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by bias for years. But, I haven’t taken the time to really understand the impact of these brain elves. Nor have I yet learned how to effectively either short-circuit them or use them as positive tools. All that changes now.

Next Steps: A New Series

I’m planning a series of posts to explore various cognitive biases. Experts far smarter and more educated in these topics than I continue to debate this topic. What I do here won’t be definitive or publishable in Scientific American. Instead, I’ll provide examples of some of the common, useful, or interesting, cognitive biases from my own experiences. And I’ll use available research from books and articles including:

These books, some explicitly about cognitive bias, others not, are useful tools for understanding the mind and how we engage with the world. Behavioral economics, neuroscience, and epigenetics* increasingly show the connections between the brain’s hardwiring and our resulting actions. With the help of the published work of experts in these fields, I’ll offer ideas on ways to cultivate awareness of bias operating in our lives.

Because I’m an informed novice rather than a true expert, I’ll approach bias from a practical rather than an academic point of view. I hope that works for you.

Why Do It?

The goal of these posts is as much to help me understand what the heck cognitive biases really are and how they affect my own life as it is to provide information to interested readers. A human brain thinking about how it does its own thinking is some kind of special mindf@#$&*. Because of that, I want and need as many perspectives from you as you’re willing to offer.

A Sampling of Upcoming Posts
  • The Stories We Tell Ourselves: In this post, I’ll explore the different ways we talk and think about the events or emotions in our lives and the power of these patterns to effect our happiness, success, and relationships. Posting December 14, 2017
  • Making a Stranger Your Friend: If you needed to move to a new house, would ten people show up to help? Would you let them help if they did? This post explores how the hardwiring in our brains impact how we build relationships, contribute in our communities, and get work done. Posting January 18, 2018
  • Our Search for Certainty: Belief, Perception, and Truth: Humans like concreteness. Gray areas freak us out. If someone or something doesn’t fit into the model we’ve built for how the world should work, “fact” and “fiction” get all messed up. We believe fictions and eschew facts. We aren’t crazy, we’re human. Everyone does this. But should we? This post looks at the value and pitfalls of certainty. Posting February 15, 2018

I’ll be using this list of cognitive biases from Wikipedia as “source of truth” for the names and definitions. Check the list out and let me know if any particular bias stands out or interests you.

I hope you’ll join me for this series and share your views and ideas, too. The bias phenomenon impacts us all. It makes sense that we all try to tackle and understand it together.

*the science behind how we rewire our genome based on responses to the environment

Your turn: What cognitive biases are you most interested in? What would you like to learn from these posts?

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

39 thoughts on “Cognitive Bias Series: Taming the Elves in Our Brains”

  1. The forthcoming posts in this series sound really interesting! I’ve no doubt I have loads of biases and it’s so useful to be more mindful of them so we can check ourselves and see whether we can change our perspective on different situations. I think I have an army of elves in my head!

    1. I love how you put that! I’m glad I’ve piqued your interest. I’m excited to write the posts, and even more excited to see what I’ll learn. It’s a tricky topic. I honestly went a bunch of directions before I decided this path was the right one. Thanks for the feedback so far!

  2. Oh my word, I am so looking forward to this series. It sounds fascinating, Angela. Cannot wait to learn more & hopefully I can feed back thoughts as we go along.

  3. I’ll be interested most to hear about how our childhood experiences play into our biases. My siblings and I talk about this all the time, especially how we may have a collective childhood but perceive it differently. Looking forward to this series!

    1. That’s an excellent point. I’ll definitely explore that angle. If you have a particular memory and examples of how you and your siblings describe it differently I’ld love to hear more.

  4. I find this whole subject really fascinating. I’d like to become aware of my own cognitive biases. The stories we tell ourselves sounds really interesting!

    1. Thanks, Noelle! I have lots of ideas on where I want to take that post, but I haven’t written it yet. Part of me thinks I might need a series within a series to explore it all!

    1. Interesting! I’m not sure how cognitive biases would be associated to either of these. However, I have read that recent work on memory manipulation–because our memories (the stories we tell ourselves at times) are malleable some studies on those who suffer from PTSD have showed promising results. It’s an aspect I believe we’ll touch on in the next post.

  5. Big theme to take on Angela, I love it. I dread to think how many biases I’ve developed – I’m sure we must all have some that we use as not only short cuts but coping mechanisms. I’m really looking forward to these posts and will have a look at some of the material you have posted here! xxx

    1. They are big themes. To be honest, I’m a little nervous that I’ll do them justice. But, there is a lot written on these topics, I’m only hoping to add to the conversation. I’m glad you’re looking forward to it. I am, too!

  6. Like all the commenters above, I think this all sounds really interesting.

    I am also in awe that you have managed to plan and schedule posts so far in advance!

  7. So exciting Angela! As a surgeon and scientist, I spent a lot of time recognizing my biases. And just as importantly, recognizing that no matter how conscious we are of our biases, we can’t completely avoid it’s impact on the conclusions we draw (which is important in gauging the outcome of research, or in some cases, the best course of treatment for patients). This, as I’m sure you know, is why so much credible research incorporates a “double blind” into the experiment.

    But in our daily lives, as you mention, bias is an important tool to help us navigate more efficiently and effectively.

    When I saw that “Freakonomics” and “Think like a Freak” were 2 of your references, I knew this would be a great series. Love all their books!

    1. Such good points! I was thoughtful as I published this that trained scientists like yourself may be reading this. My hope is that you’ll help add any clarifications and insights I miss.
      There’s a treasure trove of information, but it’s also a Pandora’s box. I’ll need to be vigilant to strike the right balance and hopefully add to the conversation in a productive way.
      Thank you for reading and adding your thoughtful comment–you’re awesome.

  8. I can’t wait to delve deeper into this series of yours. When I read your introduction I thought “Yep, this sounds like something you’d love to explore.” It reminded me of when we had our conversation about judgement and how you wanted to write about it. Your new series seems to be right up that alley. Great introduction, Angela! I love how deeply you think. 🙂

    1. Thank you! Do you give your students any particular advice? Do you see any difference in their work as a result? I’d be curious to know how this discussion plays out in the classroom. Thanks for reading and your interest!

  9. This sounds like a fascinating series. Will you be issuing reminders? Or letting us know when each post is up? I’m in the middle of researching and writing about the Great Irish Famine. As a British citizen I knew little a bout this tragic event. Listening to Irish people, and reading Irish historians on the subject, I was taken aback by the extent to which blame was laid at the door of the then British government. I hope that my research has skewed some of my inbuilt biases back towards the truth. I just published the non-fiction work and am working on a fictional account based on the life of one particular man who spent almost three years working to relieve the worst effects of the famine.

    1. An excellent comment! Yes, I should send out some kind of reminder. I’ll tweet about it for sure.
      Your research and project both sound fascinating. You make a great point, where we live and how the story is told does seem to affect the “truth” as we know it. It sounds like you had an open mind as you approached your topic. I think this is critical to neutralizing the kind of learned bias we imbibe from the stories and histories we’re told. Your comment really got me thinking! Would you mind if I reference your commment in one of the posts? I’m not certain I will (they’ve yet to be written) but thought I’d ask to see if you’d mind.

    1. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the topic in general. Since you’re a psychologist, I know you likely have a lot more training and expertise in this area than my “novice” status. So I’m counting on you to add perspective as we go along. 🙂

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