Overcoming 5 Most Common Cognitive Biases to Make Better Decisions

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We make a number of small and big decisions each day in our life. It could be due to shortage of time, increased stress, confusion, and/or our own patterns of thinking where our usage of shortcuts in the decision-making process might lead to certain errors in judgment. Here, we will focus on overcoming 5 most common cognitive biases to make better decisions.

These psychological biases, also known as Cognitive biases can simply be understood as thinking errors hindering our rational decision-making process. Eliminating these biases is not in our hands, but they can be controlled by increasing our awareness and understanding about them to make better decisions.

Following are the methods for overcoming 5 most common cognitive biases:

  1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on only the information that confirms our prior beliefs, while simultaneously rejecting contradicting information. Saving resources and protecting self-esteem might act as supporters of this bias.

In a group/team, this can create a tendency for developing a false consensus bias where a person assumes that others agree or support him more than they actually do. This might lead to people overvaluing their opinion without considering the opinion of others and believing that they already share the same value.  

Getting over confirmation bias is possible when you open yourself to information that challenges your set beliefs. Hence, try Perspective-taking from at least one person who doesn’t share your opinion about the particular decision/approach. Gathering information about their reasoning and selection criteria behind choosing the particular approach might help to take a more rational decision. In a group/team, you can use a brainstorming session to get different perspectives and even assign a team member to find the limitations of the ideas. Furthermore, you can use feedback to see your team’s genuine perspective for any decision.   

  1. Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is the tendency to be overly influenced by the first piece of information (an anchor) and making decisions based on that, instead of the overall information. For example, While buying a house, the broker might show us the most expensive ones in the beginning, this leads to setting of an anchor, and therefore all the regular houses look much cheaper and affordable in comparison.

Similar to this, the Halo effect can also affect the decision as it is the tendency to judge a person on their initial impression, instead of overall. A common example could be buying a specific beauty product thinking that it’s advertised by a beautiful person.   

Overcoming anchoring bias is somewhat easy as you need to build a habit of taking some time to reflect before making any impulsive decision. You can also take a short break to gather all your thoughts and use methods such as writing the facts and/or asking an expert opinion. You can reflect by asking yourself questions such as:

  • Have I considered all facts and information?
  • Is this decision based on an overall assessment?

  1. Self-serving bias

Self-serving bias is the tendency to give credit to yourself after success but lay the blame of failure on external sources. It works to protect self-esteem, but sometimes at the cost of blaming others for one’s own shortcomings. This bias might hinder the process of self-growth, especially when working on one’s own limitations.  

Overcoming self-serving bias can be possible with the help of building a few positive habits in yourself. These are:

  • Giving credit after success: Giving credit where it is due can help build gratitude as well as improve personal relationships. Start with thinking about a success you recently received and try to give credit to at least 3 people for this success. These people don’t necessarily need to help you directly in achieving the successful goal, but if they assisted you even slightly in the process then give them the credit.

  • Focus on areas of improvement after a bad outcome: By focusing on improving your weaknesses, you can avoid making excuses or shifting blame to others. Hence, after every mistake or bad outcome, ask yourself, “What went wrong?” and “How should I work on myself to avoid this mistake in the future?”

  • Evaluating outcomes with extra time: It’s easier for our brain to blame others, but taking time to evaluate the situation helps in better identifying our limitations. Hence, try to take a little time evaluating the different outcomes and what could have impacted them.

  1. Availability heuristics

Availability heuristics is the tendency to make a decision based on the multitude of examples we can think about from our past experiences. It is the most common cognitive bias which helped human survival from the pre-modern era by choosing to avoid risky places and eating safe food items. But in the modern world, it can lead to some poor estimates that result in bad outcomes. For example, smokers who haven’t seen anyone die after smoking a lot and developing cancer can undermine the risk. 

Overcoming availability heuristics is crucial for major life decisions. To do this, try to separate the decision from what you have experienced and focus on facts. Identify at least 3 major points about why you should make the decision and see if any of them are based on your personal experiences, and whether those experiences are relevant for this decision making process or not.

Making a team or using help from friends to discuss the decision can also help to identify each other’s availability heuristics.  

  1. Optimistic and pessimistic bias

Optimistic bias or unrealistic optimism is the tendency to overestimate your odds of success, whereas pessimistic bias or unrealistic pessimism is the tendency to underestimate your odds of success. Both biases are harmful to decision-making, as optimistic bias can lead to taking risks that can result in big failure, whereas pessimistic bias can lead to individuals avoiding a decision and regretting it later. But in terms of other consequences, optimistic bias is considerably better than pessimistic bias as it creates hope as a motivator about the future.  

To overcome these biases, try to build two habits, i.e., managing your expectations, and tracking your wins and losses. For tracking wins and losses, you can write regularly in notebooks and/or journals. To manage your expectations, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I having too much or too few expectations?
  • What could be a minimum expectation I should have from myself from this decision or situation?

Furthermore, you can do a relational impact check to seek clarity about who could be impacted by your decision or the lack of it. For this, ask yourself, “what could be the possible impacts of me taking or avoiding this decision on myself and/or others”. 

Bonus tip: Pay attention to your internal environment

Mindfulness has proven to be helpful in making decisions, hence If you’re struggling with a decision, take a moment to breathe and notice your breathing pattern, and then focus on your decision. Click here to learn more about mindfulness.

Another helpful tool to consider before making a decision is “HALT”. This focuses on physiological and psychological impacts on decisions and suggests that If you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, then don’t make any critical decisions until you feel better. 

These cognitive biases are very common, and there are many other biases that can impact your decision. Many of these biases are inevitable, but being aware of them and building habits to overcome them can be helpful to make effective decisions in the future.

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