How’s the water?

Two young fish are contentedly swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, until one of them looks at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

Like a fish in water, we are swimming in our cognitive biases, which are errors in thinking caused by our brain distorting reality. Our biases are pervasive, highly resistant to feedback, and can cause us to overlook or dismiss crucial information.

Biases and blind spots

To save time, our brain creates shortcuts called judgment heuristics, which allow us to think faster and to conserve energy. These mental shortcuts are usually helpful, but can also create blind spots when you are trying to make important decisions.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Richard Feynman (Nobel-prize-winning physicist)

Self-deception and ignorance can harm you. Not seeing reality accurately can often lead to unnecessary painful mistakes. Too often, we make decisions without recognizing our own biases.

Here are examples of common biases that can get in the way.

Availability bias. This leads you to believe that what you see is all there is. It can cause you to give priority to info and events that immediately come to mind, usually because they were recent, memorable, or personal.

Example. Most people overestimate the number of people killed by terrorism and underestimate risks associated with driving a car. More people die in car crashes every six days than die from global terrorist attacks in a year.[1] Yet, people are often more worried about terrorism than driving.

Representative bias. When two things look or seem similar, you may assume the two things will be the same or will lead to the same outcome. Representative bias is at the heart of stereotyping.

Example. Imagine you have a friend who grew up playing chess and video games. She was president of the computer science club in high school and loved to build things. You might predict, based on her interests and activities, that she would be likely to major in engineering at college. However, numbers show she is more likely to major in business as there are almost four times more business degrees given annually than engineering degrees.[2]

Confirmation bias. We tend to search for, interpret, and favor information that confirms our preexisting beliefs and desired outcomes rather than viewing information with objectivity.

Example. Confirmation bias is prevalent in politics and can be seen when people consider emotionally charged issues such as immigration and abortion. Deeply held beliefs can cause people from varying political viewpoints not only to see the same event in radically different ways, but also to reject alternative explanations.

Affect bias. Beware of making decisions based on a strong positive or negative emotional state—a “gut” feeling—without consulting all the evidence.

Example. Attitudes toward nuclear power and climate change are commonly influenced by affect bias. I’ve been guilty of this bias. I worked for twenty years promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Due to my strong beliefs, I did not fully consider the benefits of nuclear power and fossil fuels. I was wrong.

Here’s a more extensive list of cognitive biases.

To avoid fooling yourself, stress test your ideas by trying to disprove your assumptions, get feedback from people with different perspectives, hold your opinions loosely, and follow a structured decision-making process. It’s unlikely you can eliminate bias but you can be wrong less often.

[1] According to a report created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in 2017 18,753 people were killed globally by terrorists. According to Safer America, every year, roughly 1.3 million people die in car accidents worldwide—an average of 3,287 deaths per day.

[2] According to a report by the National Center for Educational Statistics, in the academic year 2014–15, 364,000 degrees in business and 98,000 engineering degrees were awarded.


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