Making better decisions: taming cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are systemic patterns in how we think. We usually think of them as diversions from rationality as we fail to take into account new information or give higher weight to certain types of information than we should. There are dozens of cognitive biases—far too many to commit to memory, let alone be aware of them in the moment.

Tackling bias in real-time is extremely difficult because our thinking evolved to take advantage of intuition when we can—it’s fast, efficient and usually “good enough.” It takes practice to learn how to beat a cognitive bias.

The first step is to understand when we are vulnerable to a cognitive bias playing a role in making a bad decision. This handy, human-centered mapping of cognitive bias can help you build your situational awareness and bias-spotting skills.

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Humans evolved ways of thinking under constrained resources of energy and time. “Human bias is a necessary consequence of the constraints we are under,” according to Tom Griffiths. Because humans are good at considering our own cognitive strategies — something Griffiths calls meta-reasoning—there are opportunities to develop “cognitive crutches.”

You don’t need to know all these biases to beat them. Instead, choose one of the bias outcomes—for example, “we simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about” and when you are next questioning the meaning of data, be conscious of simplification steps you are taking and ask “what am I missing when I simplify this?”

Cognitive biases are hardwired. But so is the need for deliberative cognition that steps in when we allow it to. There is no need to know every bias to beat it. Awareness of how bias works, developing the skills to know when to engage more deliberation and suppress intuition is the first cognitive crutch to making better decisions.

This article is one in a series of hacks, tips and tricks for making better decisions.

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