Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

“…if you tell a big enough lie…”

Posted by Andrew Cooper on March 30, 2010

Those of you who aren’t in the UK may not be aware that a general election is looming here.

As elections are all about attempting to weigh up the pros and cons of each party’s policies and coming to an objective, rational and informed decision about how to vote,*  I thought it might be useful to provide a guide to some of the ways in which our thinking can become a little warped.

So, here is list list of what are known as ‘cognitive biases’ which you might encounter in your own thinking or in that of others, during an election period. I’ve highlighted those that seem particularly relevant to elections (which is most of them, as it turns out, although some – like ‘herd effect’ and ‘confirmation bias’ should probably be underlined as well.)

Do try, as you weigh up the pros and cons of each party and its policies,  to make sure none of these apply to you.

  • Actor-observer bias – the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation (see also fundamental attribution error).
  • Ambiguity effect – the avoidance of options for which missing information makes the probability seem “unknown”.
  • Anchoring effect – the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on a past reference or on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (also called “insufficient adjustment”).
  • Attentional bias – neglect of relevant data when making judgments of a correlation or association.
  • Attribute substitution – making a complex, difficult judgement by unconsciously substituting an easier judgement
  • Authority bias – the tendency to value an ambiguous stimulus (e.g., an art performance) according to the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority on the topic.
  • Availability cascade – a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or “repeat something long enough and it will become true”).
  • Availability heuristic – estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples.
  • Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behaviour.
  • Base rate fallacy – ignoring available statistical data in favor of particulars.
  • Belief bias – an effect where someone’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by the believability of the conclusion.
  • Bias blind spot – the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases.
  • Capability bias – The tendency to believe that the closer average performance is to a target, the tighter the distribution of the data set.
  • Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.
  • Clustering illusion – the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist.
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • Congruence bias – the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, in contrast to tests of possible alternative hypotheses.
  • Conjunction fallacy – the tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones.
  • Consistency bias – incorrectly remembering one’s past attitudes and behaviour as resembling present attitudes and behaviour.
  • Contrast effect – the enhancement or diminishing of a weight or other measurement when compared with a recently observed contrasting object.
  • Cryptomnesia – a form of misattribution where a memory is mistaken for imagination.
  • Déformation professionnelle – the tendency to look at things according to the conventions of one’s own profession, forgetting any broader point of view.
  • Denomination effect – the tendency to spend more money when it is denominated in small amounts (e.g. coins) rather than large amounts (e.g. bills).
  • Disposition effect – the tendency to sell assets that have increased in value but hold assets that have decreased in value.
  • Disregard of regression toward the mean – the tendency to expect extreme performance to continue.
  • Distinction bias – the tendency to view two options as more dissimilar when evaluating them simultaneously than when evaluating them separately.
  • Egocentric bias – occurs when people claim more responsibility for themselves for the results of a joint action than an outside observer would.
  • Egocentric bias – recalling the past in a self-serving manner, e.g. remembering one’s exam grades as being better than they were, or remembering a caught fish as being bigger than it was
  • Endowment effect – “the fact that people often demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it”.
  • Extraordinarity bias – the tendency to value an object more than others in the same category as a result of an extraordinarity of that object that does not, in itself, change the value.
  • False consensus effect – the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.
  • False memory – confusion of imagination with memory, or the confusion of true memories with false memories.
  • Focusing effect – prediction bias occurring when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event; causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.
  • Forer effect (aka Barnum Effect) – the tendency to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. For example, horoscopes.
  • Framing – Using an approach or description of the situation or issue that is too narrow. Also framing effect – drawing different conclusions based on how data is presented.
  • Fundamental attribution error – the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior (see also actor-observer bias, group attribution error, positivity effect, and negativity effect).
  • Halo effect – the tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one area of their personality to another in others’ perceptions of them (see also physical attractiveness stereotype).
  • Hawthorne effect – the tendency of people to perform or perceive differently when they know that they are being observed.
  • Herd instinct – Common tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.
  • Hindsight bias – filtering memory of past events through present knowledge, so that those events look more predictable than they actually were; also known as the ‘I-knew-it-all-along effect’.
  • Hyperbolic discounting – the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs, where the tendency increases the closer to the present both payoffs are.
  • Illusion of asymmetric insight – people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers’ knowledge of them.
  • Illusion of control – the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot.
  • Illusion of transparency – people overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.
  • Illusory correlation – beliefs that inaccurately suppose a relationship between a certain type of action and an effect.
  • Illusory superiority – overestimating one’s desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. Also known as Superiority bias (also known as “Lake Wobegon effect”, “better-than-average effect”, “superiority bias”, or Dunning-Kruger effect).
  • Impact bias – the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states.
  • Information bias – the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action.
  • Ingroup bias – the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.
  • Interloper effect – the tendency to value third party consultation as objective, confirming, and without motive. Also consultation paradox, the conclusion that solutions proposed by existing personnel within an organization are less likely to receive support than from those recruited for that purpose.
  • Irrational escalation – the tendency to make irrational decisions based upon rational decisions in the past or to justify actions already taken.
  • Just-world phenomenon – the tendency for people to believe that the world is just and therefore people “get what they deserve.”
  • Last illusion — the belief that someone must know what is going on. Coined by Brian Eno.
  • Loss aversion – “the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it”.
  • Mere exposure effect – the tendency for people to express undue liking for things merely because they are familiar with them.
  • Money illusion – the tendency of people to concentrate on the nominal (face value) of money rather than its value in terms of purchasing power.
  • Moral credential effect – the tendency of a track record of non-prejudice to increase subsequent prejudice.
  • Need for Closure – the need to reach a verdict in important matters; to have an answer and to escape the feeling of doubt and uncertainty. The personal context (time or social pressure) might increase this bias.
  • Negativity bias – phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information.
  • Neglect of prior base rates effect – the tendency to neglect known odds when reevaluating odds in light of weak evidence.
  • Neglect of probability – the tendency to completely disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.
  • Normalcy bias – the refusal to plan for, or react to, a disaster which has never happened before.
  • Not Invented Here – the tendency to ignore that a product or solution already exists, because its source is seen as an “enemy” or as “inferior”.
  • Observer-expectancy effect – when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it (see also subject-expectancy effect).
  • Omission bias – the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral, than equally harmful omissions (inactions).
  • Optimism bias – the systematic tendency to be over-optimistic about the outcome of planned actions.
  • Ostrich effect – ignoring an obvious (negative) situation.
  • Outcome bias – the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.
  • Outgroup homogeneity bias – individuals see members of their own group as being relatively more varied than members of other groups.
  • Overconfidence effect – excessive confidence in one’s own answers to questions. For example, for certain types of question, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.
  • Positive outcome bias – a tendency in prediction to overestimate the probability of good things happening to them (see also wishful thinking, optimism bias, and valence effect).
  • Post-purchase rationalization – the tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value.
  • Primacy effect – the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events.
  • Projection bias – the tendency to unconsciously assume that others share the same or similar thoughts, beliefs, values, or positions.
  • Pseudocertainty effect – the tendency to make risk-averse choices if the expected outcome is positive, but make risk-seeking choices to avoid negative outcomes.
  • Reactance – the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.
  • Recency effect – the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events (see also peak-end rule).
  • Reminiscence bump – the effect that people tend to recall more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than from other lifetime periods.
  • Restraint bias – the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to show restraint in the face of temptation.
  • Rosy retrospection – the tendency to rate past events more positively than they had actually rated them when the event occurred.
  • Selection bias – a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected.
  • Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy – the tendency to engage in behaviors that elicit results which will (consciously or not) confirm existing attitudes.
  • Self-serving bias (also called “behavioral confirmation effect”) – the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests (see also group-serving bias).
  • Semmelweis reflex – the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts an established paradigm.
  • Status quo bias – the tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same (see also loss aversion, endowment effect, and system justification).
  • Stereotyping – expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual.
  • Subadditivity effect – the tendency to judge probability of the whole to be less than the probabilities of the parts.
  • Subjective validation – perception that something is true if a subject’s belief demands it to be true. Also assigns perceived connections between coincidences.
  • Suggestibility – a form of misattribution where ideas suggested by a questioner are mistaken for memory.
  • Survivorship bias – concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and ignoring those that didn’t, or arguing that a strategy is effective given the winners, while ignoring the large amount of losers.
  • System justification – the tendency to defend and bolster the status quo. Existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives disparaged sometimes even at the expense of individual and collective self-interest. (See also status quo bias.)
  • Telescoping effect – the effect that recent events appear to have occurred more remotely and remote events appear to have occurred more recently.
  • Texas sharpshooter fallacy – the fallacy of selecting or adjusting a hypothesis after the data is collected, making it impossible to test the hypothesis fairly. Refers to the concept of firing shots at a barn door, drawing a circle around the best group, and declaring that to be the target.
  • Trait ascription bias – the tendency for people to view themselves as relatively variable in terms of personality, behavior and mood while viewing others as much more predictable.
  • Ultimate attribution error – Similar to the fundamental attribution error, in this error a person is likely to make an internal attribution to an entire group instead of the individuals within the group.
  • Von Restorff effect – the tendency for an item that “stands out like a sore thumb” to be more likely to be remembered than other items.
  • Well travelled road effect – underestimation of the duration taken to traverse oft-traveled routes and over-estimate the duration taken to traverse less familiar routes.
  • Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality.
  • Zero-risk bias – preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a greater reduction in a larger risk

The full list, together with links and further explanations, can be found here at Wikipedia.

*elections aren’t about this at all, of course: the vast majority vote for the party they’ve always voted for and that’s usually determined by how their parents voted.

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