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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Availability, Correspondence and Affect Heuristic

The Affect Heuristic is how we feel, is how we think. This is known as the affect heuristic and shows that our mood heavily influences our thinking.

When we’re happy and relaxed, we’re more likely to be forgiving, more open and less sceptical in our thinking. Conversely, when we’re tense or unhappy, we’ll be more judgemental, close-minded and cynical.

The way to stay objective is simple, ask yourself “would I be thinking this if I were in a bad/good mood?” Often just asking the question can prompt you to be more open-minded, with a healthy level of scepticism.

Availability is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. This is based on the idea that if we remember it and it comes to mind first, it must be important. Being unable to distinguish the difference, the brain stores both the relevant and irrelevant so what immediately jumps to mind, isn’t always the most relevant or useful.

Correspondence Bias: This usually relates to ourselves but is often applied to other people. When correspondence bias is in play, we tend to believe that our own character and actions are responsible for the good things in our life, but our environment and external factors are responsible for all the bad things.

However, with other people, we’re not as affected by this, unless of course you don’t like the person, then you’ll be more likely to assign every negative outcome as their fault.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Representativeness

Representativeness shows that even if the odds of something are small if the person or situation matches a stereotype that matches we’re far more likely to give this more weight than we should.

Example, Mark is a detail-oriented, driven person who values logic and straightforward thinking. Is Mark more likely to be a Regional Manager for a bank or work at the checkout for a large retailer, such as ASDA or Walmart?

There are far more checkout workers than there are Regional Bank Managers so statistically, Mark is far more likely to work in a supermarket. However, we’re blinded to likelihood and probability and focus on the fact that his personality is representative of the type of person that we believe would succeed as a Regional Manager for a bank.

This also applied when we are considering events and not just people. Consider the popular example given by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

Linda is 29 years old, single, outspoken, and intelligent. She studied Gender Studies and as a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-war demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

This is the conjunction fallacy in play and is another great example at why humans are bad at probability – even statisticians. We incorrectly judge the likelihood of multiple events judged as more likely than a single event when directly compared.

The chances of Lucy being a bank teller AND a feminist are much lower than the chances of her just being a bank teller.

These are just a few of the MANY biases that our brains are susceptible to, but they’re the ones you’re most likely to come up against when you’re trying to judge a person or a situation.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Recency Effect

Availability often combines to our detriment to the recency effect. The recency effect dictates that we give greater importance to memories and experiences that have happened recently over past experiences and memories from further in the past.

You can see this often when couples fight. A typical example would be, one party is supportive and helpful for the majority of the relationship, but for the past month or so, has been slightly judgemental and not as helpful as normal.

The other person will judge their recent actions as being more prolific and common than they actually are. Saying things such as “you always do x” or “you never do y” – even if it’s clear that the person has a history of doing it, just not recently.

The strength of the memory, recent or otherwise also plays a huge part. If one memory is only visual, but another is rich and detailed with memories of sounds, smells and feelings, this memory will mentally be given a higher status.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Primacy

Primacy: When meeting someone for the first time, multiple biases are in play. The qualities and behaviours you observe first will have a stronger effect on your overall opinion of a person than things you learn later. This is thanks to a principle called primacy. It’s because of primacy that first impressions are so powerful. It takes a lot of evidence to the contrary to break your first impression. This is why grooming, clothing, body language and tone of voice are very important.

We should take care to keep this in mind when meeting people for the first time. Make a conscious effort to understand that their first impression reflects purely on their state on that particular day. Believing someone to be an angry person based on a first impression could lead to you wrongly attributing an action to or placing blame on that person.

The primacy bias also affects us when we read. Daniel Kahneman created two people where he assigned six qualities in a written list, three good qualities and three bad qualities. The qualities assigned to the two people were exactly the same, excepted the order that they were listed in was different. The first had the three good qualities listed first, followed by the three negative. The second had the opposite. People were more likely to have a positive opinion of the first person than the second, though they were essentially the same person.

We kind of filter the latter qualities based on the first few we see. Bare this in mind when listening to people talk about others – when hiring new employees for example. If they mention a person’s positive qualities first, you’re more likely to have a favourable opinion of them, even if they’re not the best person for the job.

With this in mind, you’ll often come up against another bias, which is the Halo effect.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: The Halo/Horns Effect

The halo effect shows how your impression of a person will influence your overall view of a character. This is most obvious when a person is physically attractive. It’s been known for a long time and proven in multiple studies that we rate intelligence and positive qualities of a person who we find attractive as higher than a person whom we are not attracted to.

This is based on the warped assumption that attractive equals good and ugly equal bad. Why do you think you never really see beautiful monsters or demons, but angels always seem to look like models?

The halo effect can be seen regularly with teachers. When their favourite students make a mistake on an exam, they might just assume that the student just had a bad day and not let it affect the rest of the questions as they assume the student knows the answer and just made a small mistake. However if a troublesome student makes the same mistake, they will tend to treat that students paper more harshly when grading. Exam papers and coursework in UK universities are often marked by 2 separate people to protect from this kind of bias.

However, this principle does work both ways and if we don’t see a person as attractive, we’re far more likely to perceive them as having negative qualities, even if their behaviour and actions are identical to those of the attractive person. This is termed the horns effect.

I like to describe the halo/horns effect as a filter. If you attach a blue filter to sunglasses, all objects, no matter what colour, appear blue.

So, if you form the opinion that a person is lazy, then everything they do will be passed through a “lazy” filter and just reinforce your belief.

While under the influence of the halo or horns effect, we are also far more likely to fall into the trap of correspondence bias.

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