Author Archives: Michael Parker

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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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Anchoring

Anchoring: According to the principles of anchoring, our brains tend to latch on the first piece of information we receive and then use this as a benchmark to measure everything else against.

Even when you know about anchoring, it’s still very difficult to avoid its effects. Some studies have shown that even arbitrary numbers and completely unrelated numbers can have a huge effect on our judgements. The prime example being Dan Ariely’s study where has asked his audience to write down the last two digits of their social security number and then separately they were asked to bid on a number of items the value of which was unknown. What the study found was that people with higher digits would submit bids that were 60-120 % higher than those with low numbered digits.

In negotiations, whatever is mentioned as the first figure, is the anchor and the negotiators will unconsciously measure every other number in comparison to this. You’ll often hear people say that in a negotiation whoever speaks first loses, but to take advantage of the anchoring effect make sure YOU set the anchor. If you want to sell a product for £200, don’t mention £300 as your starting price, say £400. If you then bring the price down to £200, while intellectually we probably understand what’s going on, our brains can’t really ignore that first figure and you’ll see the new price as a bargain.

It’s also the reason sales work so well, Was £500, Now £150 – wow. Compared to £500, what is £150? The majority of the time, that £150 is what the retailer was planning on charging anyway and the higher Was price is just there to provide an anchor.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Confirmation Bias

Until your experience develops enough to know when you can trust your instincts and challenge you assumptions, you need to learn how to manage it and reduce how often you jump to conclusions.

Our thoughts are tainted by our experiences and our minds are influenced by a myriad of biases and heuristics. By understanding these biases and through deliberate practice, we’re going to learn how to limit their effects on our judgements.

Confirmation Bias


For aspiring superthinkers, the most damaging fallacy is confirmation bias; when gathering and analysing evidence, it’s important to stay objective. If you’ve got absolutely no idea about the situation, then this can be a little easier, but if you’ve already formed a hypothesis, chances are you’ll fall into the trap.

Confirmation bias is when you ignore evidence that proves your hypothesis wrong and only seek or pay attention to evidence that supports your hypothesis.

University students are particularly susceptible to this when writing essays. They often tend to form an argument and then hunt for theories to back up their claims – I know this because I’ve done it myself.

Being aware of confirmation bias and reminding yourself of its existence can on its own make you take a step back, but in the next section, we’ll explore some tools which help you to avoid a blinkered approach.


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