December 15, 2018 | ° F

GUVERCIN: Awareness of cognitive biases can empower us


Opinions Column: The Bigger Picture


If you truly want to witness how capable humans are of distorting their own realities, succumbing to subjective and ungrounded notions and diminishing their own rational thoughts, simply take a psychology class. One of the biggest areas of research within the psychology community, particularly in the field of social psychology, is the prevalence of cognitive biases, which refers to the “systematic ways in which the context and framing of information influence individuals’ judgment and decision-making.” 

In other words, it is a process that can impair judgment and rationality and induces us to react to certain events with a subjective mindset. Many of these mental “shortcuts” or heuristics occur automatically and beneath our level of awareness, which demonstrates just how ingrained they are into our systems of thought. Furthermore, they are likely caused by the brain’s efforts to simplify all the complex information we take in, allowing us to speed up the mental processes that we use to make decisions. 

For instance, one of the simple biases many people have is called hindsight bias, which is when an individual claims that they “knew something all along” as they assess the outcome of a past event. 

Another common one is called the overconfidence bias in which a person is more confident in their abilities than what they may actually be capable of. You might even be able to identify one of your professors as having this bias and the tendency to talk as if what they are stating is fact because professionals and people with credentials are more prone to it. 

Even the placebo effect is considered a cognitive bias, as it has nothing to do with the placebo itself, but rather the patient’s ability to mentally influence whether it will have an effect when it actually lacks it. 

There are certain advantages to having cognitive biases, primarily in that they allow us to essentially “think on our feet.” For instance, if you are walking alone one night and you sense a presence or shadow near you, these internal heuristics may cause you to assume that someone intends to harm you, causing you to hasten your pace. But, it is safe to say that the majority of the time, these biases cloud our thinking and cause us to harbor internal preconceptions that are far from accurate. 

The reason that these biases need to be addressed is not only because they cause personal inaccuracies, but also because of the fact that when they become widespread and permeate to social spheres, they can cause devastating effects. 

A paragon of this can be found in the authority bias, which is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure. Despite the validity of what they may be saying, one becomes more influenced by that opinion. This is especially harrowing when considered in terms of historic tragedies that have occurred as a result of people putting political leaders on an intellectual pedestal and disregarding the merit of the speech itself. 

Another instance is found in ingroup bias, which is the tendency of people to display preferential behavior to those they perceive as members of their own groups. This can be a highly stigmatizing mode of thought that can engender a profound social segregation of people, whether it be based on race, religion, political ideology, gender, etc. 

Moreover, the bandwagon effect is a form of groupthink in which people adopt ideas that are held by the majority, even if it is completely inaccurate. A cognitive bias like this deindividualizes a person and removes them from individualistic rational thoughts and beliefs while causing them to adopt the beliefs of the group. It is easy to see how these cognitive biases could become detrimental to a population that harbors harmful and ungrounded beliefs.

We have witnessed countless historic tragedies and events in which various internal prejudices and social pressures altered individual thought and prevented rationalization, causing individuals and groups of people to be targeted and ultimately preventing societal growth. Therefore, it is necessary to consider factors that may be overlooked or seen as miniscule, such as cognitive biases, and understand their social potencies. 

Even though these are internal processing errors and seem to be out of our control because of their automaticity, educating ourselves and our societies on their existence, prevalence and influence can engender potentially revolutionary changes. Acquiring such knowledge can induce healthy mindsets in which we question and try to improve our own modes of thought, as well as be able to trust our individual intuitions rather than relying on those of others. 

While it seems insignificant in the context of one person, a global awareness of cognitive biases has the power to put our actions and plans as a society into necessary perspective.

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore double majoring in philosophy and psychology. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Fridays.

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Dilara Guvercin

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