You have probably argued with someone whose position did not make sense. Instead of backing it up with facts, this person ended up just spouting the same slogans over and over again in a never ending circle.
“We were always at war with Eurasia.“
It’s a matter of facts, you would say to yourself. Maybe if they knew the facts, they wouldn’t be saying what they are saying.
After this quiet self-talk, you would then go back, research the shit out of the subject and send a summary of this research to them.
However, contrary to what you expected, they would not buckle down under a barrage of facts. Being exposed to facts just made their weakly argued conviction even stronger. Your strategy backfired.
A few days later they would come back and start saying the same thing you told them, albeit with their own spin, without even acknowledging that it was you who told them this in the first place.
“We were always at war with Eastasia.“
Or they might come back and start shouting their original slogans even louder, thinking it is how loud you shout and not the strength of your arguments that determines who is right.
On the other hand, it is not always others who are the problem. Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror. Maybe it is you who behaves this way. 🙂
What is at work here are cognitive biases. We all fall for them, but some people fall for them in a stronger way than others.
The first step of a recovering addict is to acknowledge that you have a problem. 🙂
Only after you are honest with yourself and face your weaknesses, can the journey towards recovery begin. Without this step, any attempt at a cure will be met with failure.
Once you have faced up to your problem, the next step is to start learning about what it actually is.
What are cognitive biases and why do humans fall for them?
There are different challenges that humans have to get through daily. So different mechanisms evolved in order to make this easier.
One of the ways to solve many of these problems is using heuristics. These are mental shortcuts that humans take in order to solve problems and then take action based on these solutions.
Most of the time, the solutions that these heuristics come up with are correct and you can rely on them.
However, there are times when these heuristics fail and come up with a bad answer, a cognitive bias.
My Framework for Cognitive Biases
I have been reading about cognitive biases for a while now. Ever since Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” came out, this concept seems to be popping up everywhere and many more popular works have come out discussing it.
However, being a perfectionist and a guy who likes to put things in boxes, I was missing a more systematic categorization of the different types of biases out there. For me, this type of categorization would help in keeping the discussion relevant for the common folk and extremely helpful if you want to apply lessons in real life.
Not finding anything to satisfy me, I decided to come up with my own framework for cognitive biases. I thought back and tried to reduce all the different biases to their first principles and work up from there.
I looked at some of the basic similarities and differences between the different types of biases and came up with some initial categories.
Why and how did these biases evolve in the first place? Here, evolutionary psychology can shed a light.
Evolution does not come up with perfect solutions, only with solutions that are viable enough to survive.
The drivers for every living thing are survival and reproduction. This happens in a very complex outside world where many dangers (but also opportunities) are present.
So heuristics (and cognitive biases) evolved in order to promote survival. Due to the fact that your environment is so complex, you need to have the ability to analyze it and then make a decision on what to do next.
The two basic principles behind the way your brain works are speed and efficiency:
1) You need to make quick decisions based on outside stimuli. So speed is important.
2) You should not expend too many resources, and so you need to do things in the most efficient manner possible. You never know when and from where your next dinner will come from, so saving energy is a priority.
In order to make decisions quickly and efficiently, your brain developed mental shortcuts. That’s where heuristics come from.
However, if your brain developed to make decisions to ensure your survival, why does it fall for cognitive biases? The answer here is costs.
By saying costs, I mean the potential pay-out of making the right and wrong decision.
Imagine yourself walking along a path with bushes all around you. You hear a sound. It could be anything really.
However you search back and it reminds you of the sound a lion makes. You decide to start running away from the place as fast as possible.
Turns out it was a false alarm. Your brain connected the dots, but in fact it was a false pattern.
No harm done. You are a bit sweaty and tired, but you are still alive.
Now imagine yourself walking again along the same path. You hear a sound.
This time you decide not to run and just stay there. Then suddenly a lion jumps out of the bushes and kills you. You are dead meat!
You failed to connect the dots and ended up as lunch.