Halloween is scary. All sorts of creatures are running wild – ghouls and ghosts, witches and goblins, werewolves and vampires…biases and heuristics.
That’s right, biases and heuristics can be scary too! They can cause us undue harm if we are not careful, but understanding the power that they have over our behaviors can help.
Our overconfidence bias might convince us that we can easily make that crazy Halloween costume for our youngest daughter, only to realize on October 30th that there is no way that we’ll be able to finish it. Or, you may find that giving your kids more information on the negative impact of candy backfires and they chow down more M&M’s than ever before.
These behaviors can be driven by biases. They are real and they have an impact on our lives.
To really get deep into the biases and heuristics that drive us, we highly recommend reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Nobel winning economist Daniel Kahneman. The following is a quick overview of six of them, their impact, and how you can help guard yourself against the more sinister aspects that they bring.
We tend to have a greater belief in our abilities and knowledge than is warranted. Researchers see this all the time when they survey people about:
- how good of a driver they are (8 out of 10 men think they are better than average drivers)
- how long it will take them to do something (in a study with students on how long it would take to finish their thesis, only 30% completed in the time they thought, the estimated average was 33.9 days, while the actual completion time was 55.5 days)
- or how knowledgeable they are on a topic (in one study, people were asked to spell words, those who were most confident that they had correctly spelled the word, were wrong 20%-40% of the time).
We are overconfident and that can lead to problems. So how can you overcome this?
One way of lessening the impact of this bias is to explore base rates. A base rate is an actual rate or percentage in which something happens in the real world. For example, if we think that we can finish our senior thesis in 35 days, but we look at the base rate and see that it takes most students 55 days to finish, then we can readjust our estimate.
The challenge in this method is finding a realistic base rate to work with. For instance, if you’re looking to make a home-made Halloween costume for your kid, your base rate for how long it would take would need to be based on someone with a similar level of costume making ability, and a similarly difficult costume. That is a lot of work – so we don’t often do this.
Another way of overcoming our overconfidence is to be intentionally aware of our bias, and arbitrarily add on time to a project or decrease our certainty of an outcome. Thus, if I think I will need 3 hours to write a blog post, I will arbitrarily add on an extra hour or two to cover for this. I call this the “remodel your kitchen” solution where we tend to add on 20% to both the time and cost that a contractor gives us for remodeling a kitchen. Do the same to your own estimates and certainties.
As humans, we are really good at confirming are pre-held beliefs. We unconsciously search for and focus on the information that confirms those ideas that we already hold, while discounting or even outright ignoring information that is contrary to those pre-held beliefs. The research around this is consistent and damning.
James Goodwin gives a great example of confirmation bias
“Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were ‘thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!’ Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn’t call and (b) they weren’t thinking about Mom and she did call.”
Confirmation bias happens at our subconscious level and impacts how information gets processed. The neural networks in our brains are wired to accept information that confirms our pre-held beliefs and discount information that contradicts these ideas. This makes it very difficult to identify and to stop this behavior in ourselves.
However, we can often see this type of behavior in others – and we can use this to our benefit.
One way to help in overcoming this scary bias is to create an on-going discussion group that is specifically aimed at examining how we make decisions. The aim of the group is to ensure that we are looking at the world from the way it is and not just in the way we want it to be. Have the group meet on a regular basis and discuss some of the bigger decisions that you’ve made. Give the reasoning behind your decisions to get the group’s input. I’ve found that a group of three to four diverse people (those who’s opinions and ideas do not align 100% with yours) provides a robust way of looking at things from different perspectives.
Another technique identified by Lord, Lepper, and Preston uses a strategy that they call “consider the opposite.” In this strategy, your task is to consider the opposite of what the information is presenting to you at each step of the process and to identify which evaluation you would agree with more. For instance, if you are reading an article that highlights research on gun violence (i.e., that increased gun control reduces gun violence), ask yourself if the research methods used had shown the opposite result (i.e., that increased gun controls did not reduce gun violence) if you would still agree with it. This cognitive exercise helps us reframe our thinking and more readily accept contrary viewpoints.
The backfire effect is contrary to how we would rationally think we operate and is a close companion to confirmation bias. It highlights that when we are presented with facts about a strongly held belief that refutes that belief, we not only tend to ignore that information, but we often double down on our prior belief with an even stronger held conviction.
This happens often with emotionally charged beliefs that impact our perception of who we are. Topics such as abortion, religion, gun control, stereotyping, and immigration can all be triggers for this type of thinking.
If you are talking with someone about a controversial topic and you want to try to limit the backfire effect, one way is to show that you identify with them as a person. Find areas of similarity with that person. By stating, “I used to be just like you…” or “I also feel that way sometimes,” or “I can see how you think that…” we diffuse the situation and allow them to feel that if they alter their viewpoint they can still be the person they are. One similar method to this is to find a popular figure or opinion leader whom they respect who agrees with you and use their words to help convey your information.
Another helpful hint is to be curious. Instead of talking about all the reasons that you are right and presenting them with a whole bunch of facts, start asking them why they hold their belief. Use some of the “consider the opposite” tricks from above. Ask them if the research had shown the opposite effect, what would they think.
We tend to copy the behavior of others in a given social situation – particularly if we are unsure about or new to that situation. We tend to follow the herd, whether or not the herd is correct or mistaken. Robert Cialdini highlights this concept in his book, Influence, with a number of examples. One famous example is that people tend to find jokes funnier when there is a canned laugh track associated with the joke.
Social proof is more powerful if we believe that the herd of people who are doing something is similar to us. If we identify with them, the powerful pull of a large number of people doing something is stronger. My teenage son is not influenced by fashion statements of me, his dad, regardless of how many other 50+-year-olds are wearing cargo shorts.
Social proof is often used in advertising to try to get us to buy something. If you’ve seen ads that say “used by millions” or the old McDonalds signs that said “billions served” – you’ve experienced social proof. Recognizing that corporations are using this tactic, can help make us aware of when it is being used, and protect ourselves against its influence.
It is also good to know yourself well. Take time to think about what you like and don’t like. What are your preferences around different things? If you know that you only tip for service when a waiter serves you at your table, you will be less likely to be influenced by seeing a tip jar pre-loaded with money at the coffee shop.
We tend to conform to the group norms and behaviors in a given situation, even if that goes against our own judgment. Similar to Social Proof, this bias is less dependent on feeling uncertain in a situation. We see this in mob mentality, where a person conforms with the group, whether that be shouting at others or breaking windows in shops, but know that the behavior that they are eliciting is wrong.
Conformity bias is good when traveling to an unknown culture or country and we want to fit in. It is not good when we get caught up in groupthink that is counterproductive to our desires.
In a group, our brains often override our better selves and drive us to fit in or conform to the overall group dynamic. Today, we see this not only in in-person situations but also online. The language and vulgarity that is expressed in some chat rooms or social media are prevalent, in part, because that is the social norm for that group and we feel the need to fit in.
To combat conformity bias we need to understand our own values and keep them top-of-mind. Mindfulness practice (i.e., meditation, prayer, etc…) can help us train our minds to be able to be calm and relaxed even in high-stress situations. Taking a moment to reflect while in the midst of a group and to see if the behaviors that you are exhibiting are the behaviors that you feel showcase who you are, can help protect you from the power of this bias.
Another way to fight conformity bias is to find a subgroup inside the larger group that shares your ideals and beliefs. This subgroup can act as a buffer to the larger group influence.
Blind Bias Spot
We believe that we are less biased than others. Just like looking into a car’s rearview mirrors, there are blind spots in our own mind, and we fail to see our own biases or their impact on our behavior. I have a friend who would get into relationships very quickly and have really strong feelings that “this is the one” but within a few months they would find a number of flaws with the other person and within four to six months they would be moving on. This person always blamed the other person, without seeing the pattern that they were exhibiting. They were blind to their own part in these breakups.
It is hard to be able to identify our own faults. Our brains are wired to protect our fragile ego and we can easily be duped by it.
One way to protect ourselves is to use the same discussion group that we formed to help overcome confirmation bias to help us see our own blind spots. Ask the group to identify those areas where they see you consistently doing things that are holding you back or altering your sense of reality.
Another way to help overcome this effect is to look at base rates again. If we know that the vast majority of the population is impacted by a bias it is likely that we also have that bias. If we truly think that we don’t, we need to identify why that bias doesn’t impact us with a solid, fact-based rationale.
In conclusion – biases can be scary BUT we don’t need to be scared, we just need to have an understanding of what they are and how we can overcome them. Thanks for taking the time to learn a bit about how to overcome the biases you may find impacting your life.
Adams, P., & Adams, J. (1960). Confidence in the Recognition and Reproduction of Words Difficult to Spell. The American Journal of Psychology, 73(4), 544-552.
Buehler, Roger; Dale Griffin; Michael Ross (1994). “Exploring the “planning fallacy”: Why people underestimate their task completion times”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 67 (3): 366–381.
Cialdini, Robert (1993). Influence (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins
Goodwin, James, and Goodwin, Kerri A., (2017) Research in Psychology: Methods and Design, 8th Edition C John Wiley & Sons
Lord, Charles; Mark Lepper; Elizabeth Preston (1984). Consider the Opposite: A Corrective Strategy for Social Judgement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.