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Can Awareness of Our Biases Clear Our Vision?

19 Jul 2009


(please forgive the poor video quality, the only way I could shorten the video to under 10minutes was to convert and clip the last few minutes).

Previously, I've shared thoughts on decision making. In this instance I'll cover an interesting neurological side effect of our conscious mind, cognitive biases.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive biases, here's a quick background on the concept from the wikipedia:

A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations (see also cognitive distortion and the lists of thinking-related topics). Implicit in the concept of a "pattern of deviation" is a standard of comparison; this may be the judgment of people outside those particular situations, or may be a set of independently verifiable facts. The existence of some of these cognitive biases has been verified empirically in the field of psychology, others are widespread beliefs, and may themselves be a consequence of cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases are instances of evolved mental behavior. Some are presumably adaptive, for example, because they lead to more effective actions or enable faster decisions. Others presumably result from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms, or from the misapplication of a mechanism that is adaptive under different circumstances.

Prompted by Mark Davidson's post on friendfeed, I happily dug through the cognitive bias list from wikipedia. The question it inspired, can simply being aware of our own cognitive biases help us to make more effective decisions? Aren't our biased decision making processes the essence of our persona, our style, and our mind? Even if we were fully aware of all of our biases, we'd still need to know precisely how much they weigh in on our decisions in order to be less affected by them.

Cognitive biases are not only part of what defines us. In a way they are a form of mild self delusion, or self deception. Evolutionary forces pushed our minds to develop decisions to speedup the process. We are forced to make many decisions in our lifetimes. Getting hung up on something that is a close call or relatively unimportant, is easily resolved in favor of one of our cognitive biases. What we'd like to avoid, is making heavily biased decisions on a regular basis when it is in our best interest to make these decisions with minimal self bias. While I'm not confident that this can be accomplished, I do see value in being cognisant of some commonly described biases.

The following lists are how I like to envision/cluster some of the cognitive biases on wikipedia's list.

Related to self or familiarity bias:

Incorrect weighting of available information:

The Lazy or momentum bias:

And a few more of my favorite biases: