Have you ever found yourself muttering the words, “Logically I know that, but for some reason, I still don’t believe it.”
This is what I refer to as the battle of the brains. It’s the logical brain versus the emotional brain and often times the emotional brain is the ultimate defeater.
In fact, the brain was designed that way.
In many instances, the logical brain doesn’t stand a chance against the emotional brain. After all, the emotional brain is faster, stronger, and triggers the release of hormones that fuel adrenaline. Why wouldn’t it win in a battle? When faced with uncertainty, the brain’s prefrontal cortex or “logical brain” is slower to respond to incoming information than the limbic system or “emotional brain.” In a sense, it’s often just easier to let our emotions guide our decisions.
Princeton Professor and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, describes this process in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He contends that two different brain systems are used to make decisions, which he refers to as System 1 and System 2.
System 1: The fast, automatic, emotional, and instinctive part of our brain that is used to make fight-or-flight decisions.
System 2: The slower, conscious, analytical, and more logical part of our brain that is used to solve complex problems. This is where reason dominates; however, according to Kahneman, “The first system often dictates the second.”
You can often see this process play out when you are facing major decisions such as whether to start a new business, move to a new city or change careers. During these times, your thinking may be guided by faulty processing systems.
Or otherwise known as cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are systematic thinking errors that can strongly impact judgment and decisions. They are so persuasive, that they can even prevent us from making changes despite feeling miserable. The human brain has a tendency to perceive information through a filter of personal experience and preferences. The result? False assumptions are made that limit one’s ability to engage in objective thinking. While many types of cognitive biases exist, I will share 7 of the most common ones that I have come across in working with other people.
7 Cognitive Biases Guaranteed to Keep You From Pursuing Your Goals
1. Confirmation Bias
“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” ~ Warren Buffet
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms pre-existing beliefs or preferences. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, we will falsely assume that our beliefs are correct, leading us to subconsciously ignore or dismiss any new information that challenges what we firmly believe.
Why are people drawn to confirmation biases?
Accepting information that confirms our existing beliefs takes very little mental effort. Plus, researchers have found that once people have developed a strong opinion on an issue, they struggle to process alternative information in a rational, unbiased manner. This is particularly true if there is an emotional attachment tied to their belief. Furthermore, people who engage in confirmation bias tend to surround themselves with other people who will confirm what they already believe. This prevents them from having to think about the “big picture” and instead focuses their attention on information that validates their own beliefs and perceptions.
As they say…”Perception Is Reality.”
Confirmation bias plays out in politics all the time. For example, if we favor one political candidate over another, we may only pay attention to news stories that paint our favored candidate in a positive light and disregard any conflicting evidence. Unfortunately, confirmation bias can negatively impact our ability to execute a new goal by keeping us stuck in old thinking habits. If you lack confidence in your ability to succeed, you may only seek out and accept information that confirms your existing attitudes and beliefs. This will only further prevent you from moving forward.
2. Negativity Bias
“Just think of any negativity that comes at you as a raindrop falling into the ocean of your bliss.” ~ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Negativity bias is the tendency to give more weight to negative information or experiences over positive ones. Strong negative emotions like anxiety, fear, guilt, or shame can skew our perception of ourselves and the world around us, negatively impacting our ability to make effective decisions.
Studies have shown that people have a tendency to be more heavily impacted by negative memories and feelings. In one Harvard study, 200 professionals from various industries were instructed to keep a diary by recalling an event that stood out during their day. After several months and over 12,000 entries, the researchers found that setbacks on a meaningful project affected workers’ happiness twice as much as a step forward in the right direction. The authors concluded that in general, people are more likely to remember and alter future decisions based on perceived negative biases.
In a business setting, this type of thinking can be very detrimental, leading to unnecessary risk aversion when risks may be warranted.
3. Status Quo Bias
“The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.” ~ Bob Iger
The tendency for people to prefer things to stay the same. Subsequently, they either choose to do nothing or stay with a previously made decision. According to research presented by Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, people feel greater regret for bad outcomes that result from new actions than for bad consequences that are the result of inaction.
Change is difficult for many people, which often leads them to make choices that guarantee things remain the same, or change as little as possible. Unfortunately, people who adopt a status quo bias will often be unable to see any perceived benefits of trying something new because their fear of something going wrong is too powerful.
4. Availability Heuristic
“The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.” ~ John Madden
The tendency to rely on the immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. When facing a new decision, a number of related events or situations might pop into your mind. As a result, your perception may be that those events are more realistic or probable, leading you to overestimate the likelihood of similar events happening in the future.
Kahneman and Tversky claimed that the availability heuristic occurs unconsciously and operates under the principle “if you can think of it, it must be important.” Basically, events that come to mind more easily are believed to be more common and a more accurate portrayal of the real world. For example, after reading a news report about the number of start-ups that fail, you start to believe that your new business venture is destined for failure. These fears may become so great that they dissuade you from ever pursuing your dream of being a business owner.
5. Loss Aversion
“Losses loom larger than gains by about 2-to-1.” ~ Daniel Kahneman
The tendency to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains of the same size. Basically, the belief is that it is better to not lose $20 than to find $20.
One theory is that there is an evolutionary component underlying loss aversion with threats being perceived as more important than opportunities. Another theory is that losses may trigger greater activity in brain regions that process emotion, making it stand out more in a given situation.
6. The Sunk Cost Fallacy
“Sunk costs? We pay too much attention to them.” ~ Richard Thaler
This describes the tendency to persist with bad decisions due to our irrational attachment to costs that we cannot recover. This type of bias pertains to any type of investment and once we have dedicated time, money, and energy to a project or goal, it can be hard to let it go. Even when we know that it isn’t in our best interest to continue pursuing it.
As a general whole, we do not like to feel like we have wasted resources. As such, this cognitive bias leaves us feeling stuck. For example, maybe you are at a point in your career where you want to try something new. However, the sunk cost fallacy kicks in and you start thinking that you have invested too much time and energy into your current job and don’t want to feel like you are taking a step backward. What is important to remember is that no matter what you end up doing, the time and money that you previously spent is already a sunk cost. So is it ultimately worth continuing in an unfulfilling job or career that will leave you feeling miserable?
7. Galatea Effect
“Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy.” ~ Brian Tracy
The Galatea effect is a phenomenon where people’s opinions about their own self-worth or abilities influence their performance. Basically, the Galatea Effect describes a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to how we deal with people, events, and circumstances.
If an employee believes that he can perform well, chances are that he will do well. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If that same employee has a negative attitude or low self-esteem, ultimately his thoughts will hinder his motivation and behavior.
Techniques for Overcoming Cognitive Biases to Make Better Decisions
- Leave major decisions for when you are feeling physically and mentally refreshed. We are all susceptible to engaging in System 1 thinking, especially when we’re feeling fatigued, stressed, or under the weather. To mitigate this, we should increase our level of self-awareness and put off major decisions for when we are feeling mentally and physically strong.
- Find a trusted advisor who will hold you accountable. According to researchers Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock, if we are expected to justify our beliefs, feelings, and behaviors to others, we are less likely to be biased towards confirmatory evidence. In general, people do not like to be seen as illogical and will be more open to challenging information if they have to report to another person.
- Complete a Force Field Analysis to mitigate a negativity bias. This is a useful tool that aids in the decision-making process by analyzing both the forces for and against change. To complete a Force Field Analysis, begin by describing your plan or vision for change. Next, identify all the internal and external forces that are driving the change. Then, brainstorm forces that resist or are unfavorable to change. Finally, rate each force using some sort of scale, such as 1-5 to determine how important each force is. This will leave you with a more objective outline to make an informed decision.
- Use cognitive-behavioral techniques to challenge any limiting beliefs. According to the Galatea effect, if a person has faith in his/her own abilities, then chances are that he/she will follow through on a goal. When our confidence and morale is high, we will put all our energy and effort towards achieving any goals that we set for ourselves.
- Seek out other’s advice and opinions. When all else fails, ask your friends and trusted advisors for their advice. Just make sure to listen to opinions that differ from your own to limit any confirmation bias!
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Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The psychology of preference. Scientific American, 246, 160-173.
Lerner, J. S., & Tetlock, P. E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological bulletin, 125(2), 255.
Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. J. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.