I was learning about the human brain and its potential. It has one billion neurons. It can make many connections and no computer is yet to be invented to be the brain. Armed with these facts I started feeling with my analytical abilities and education, I told myself that I can always figure out the best decisions possible. An examination of my decisions post facto was found to be filled with errors. Errors in statistics are known as biases. But what is the name for errors in my decision-making? Cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases arise because of the limitation of the human brain to process information. The human brain attempts to simplify the complexity around us by providing rules of thumb. The human brain is powerful but limited by cognitive biases. Now, let’s see something about cognition. It is a broader term than just perceiving. It encompasses mental processes involved in gaining knowledge, comprehension explained as knowing, understanding, memorizing, recalling, judging and decision making but not limited to them. If the world is simple as in the case of Neanderthals such as living, hunting, reproducing, and dying the alternatives are generally limited. However, issues faced by people are complex and the alternatives and outcomes are filled with uncertainty. people simplify the world with the help of thumb rules roughly translated as biases. You must outsmart your own biases so that you will be successful and should not rely on intuition alone, as it may lead us to chaos.

What are the domains in which we are likely to have biases?

Let me divide for you, into six buckets. They are memory, social learning, belief, money, and politics. There are a total of 110 known biases. A word of caution, all biases are not cognitive. I will discuss bias from six disciplines. That does not mean they are in silos. The biases will occur in different spheres of psychology, sociology, finance, and political science memory. When you are reading horoscopes or descriptions given on Facebook about your personality, all the statements appear to be a good description of yours. Just within minutes, the program will give you a good description of yourself by showing you are like Lion or some other animal. Is it true? No to a large extent. It is known as the Barnum effect. People tend to believe general vague descriptions about themselves as true based on some paranormal beliefs. The conmen use a set of statements that are suitable to anyone in most situations. A related bias is subjective validation. People perceive two unrelated events to be related because their personal beliefs make them perceive that they are related. For a long time, I considered myself, Gemini and ascribing all the descriptions. Later someone told me I am Taurus. I began reading and it was found to be true. Then, I randomly chose a sign. Every sign used to be relevant to me until I read the Barnum Effect.

Some persons with little knowledge, start talking as if they are experts, and some experts underplay themselves. The less competent talk more confidently and more competent talk with less confidence and with disclaimers! It is known as Dunning–Kruger Effect in the social sphere. Let me explain by way of a graph.

Let us consider two axes. Confidence and Competence. If a person claims with little competence he will go to the peak of “I know”; neither he learns nor will allow others to learn, if he is a leader. On the other hand, if a person is working in a learning organization, there will be constant and sustainable learning and he or she will accept that ‘I may not understand” and continue to learn to reach a “phase of understanding”.

Let me travel back to Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a King. He was punished for cheating death twice. The punishment was he is forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top. This he must repeat forever. Even we do it. We try to invest in relationships or tasks because we invested a lot of time and resources. The sunk costs drive us to work on them and realize that it is futile. It is known as Sunk Cost Fallacy in finance. “Fail fast” is created in systems design to address this issue. I think people will pay a lot of attention to how I dress and how I talk and behave. People are least likely to pay attention unless you dress oddly. This politics is known as the Spotlight effect. I keep my table as it is, even if I know and others say that it is cluttered. I feel comfortable with the chaotic way of working. Why? I wish to have the status quo and refrain from changing. People prefer things as they are rather than accept change. If we do not change even due to evidence, then I am suffering from Status Quo bias. The same information told differently, is likely to change how we understand. I was searching for a cellphone. I had an old handset, which costed me 6k. However, the handset missed some of the functionalities of my needs. So, I preferred to buy a 10k handset. At the showroom, most of the sets the salesperson showed me ranged between 20k to 30k; they were expensive for me. Then, I visited a website, and still found sets that costs 20k,30k,60k etc. I felt that the 20k is comparatively cheap. It is known as the Framing Effect. If you frame the same information differently, you are likely to not make the same decisions.

I saw an old man stumbling on a street crossing the road unable to face traffic. I was alone. I went to him and helped him to cross the road. When I was in a crowded street, I saw a blind man trying to get his way to a bus entrance. I just did not move.  I started thinking why for two similar situations, two solutions? I am guided by the Bystander Effect. If I am alone, I feel like helping. If there are many people, I feel someone will take care of them.

I was looking at the blue sky with clouds. They are silvery and saw a beautiful formation of the child in the clouds. The poet in me started looking at the different clouds. I started seeing them more. I felt that this is how poets get inspiration and started telling my wife to look for such formations. She could not find it and started looking at me strangely! It is a Clutter effect. I saw few samples of the clouds and made a judgment that they form shapes that are familiar to me.

Let me conclude. After a long time and a pause, I thought that many decisions made by me are either false or suffer from bias. Is it possible to avoid bias? No. It is human to suffer from these biases and probably make life to see the world in different prisms.

About the Author

Dr. Prabhakar Krishnamurthy holds a doctorate in social forecasting and Oxford Scholar in Multidimensional Poverty. A qualitative researcher teaching medical applications in mental health and health care.

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