Forewarned is forearmed

23 09 2014

Why would we want to understand our everyday thinking in the first place?

Because, we would like to improve it.

But why would we like to improve it?

Because it affects our day-to-day decision-making and we want to make better decisions.

By trying to understand the science of everyday thinking, we attempt to understand the biases, influences, and attitudes that affect our thinking, how they affect, and how the awareness of them would enable us to be better thinkers.

But, ironically, the renowned psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who has studied human judgment and decision-making and the inherent heuristics and biases at play for decades, confesses that his thinking has not improved much over the time. But he has a valuable advice for us: “Pick up an area and work on improving it, rather than focusing on improving overall thinking in general.”


Well, let’s just believe in the adage – “forewarned is forearmed”, and keep this not so encouraging confession aside for now.

It is startling, to say the least, to discover that we operate under the influence of a large number of psychological biases, heuristics, and cognitive errors on a daily basis. To start with, we are subjected to “Naïve Realism”, which implies that we believe the world to be as it seems. But actually it’s not – we see it through our “lens” (perception) and it’s different for everyone. People tend to underestimate the contribution of their beliefs and theories to observation and judgment and fail to realize how many other ways they could have been interpreted. This tendency is referred to as “Fundamental Cognitive Error”.

Do you know that everyone one of us like to see himself/herself as above average? This is called “the above-average effect”. Do you relate to the experience where you plan for the end exams or a paper submission and largely fall short of the time it really takes to accomplish them? Well, you are not alone. We all have this tendency called the “Planning Fallacy”, where we underestimate how long it will take for us to complete a task.

“Availability Heuristic” causes us to misinterpret ease of cognitive processing as being indicative of a larger category. So, over-hyped news items or tragic events that are stuck to memory make us believe that they are more prevalent. The classic example is airplane crashes vs road accidents. Even though more people die on the road compared to on a plane per day, the fact that the airplane crash is given more media coverage leads us to believe that flying is more dangerous than driving.

Of course, there is the “Confirmation Bias”, by which people look for and gather evidence that supports or confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. And by “Representativeness Heuristic”, we estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype that already exists in our minds.

The most interesting cognitive bias is the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. It describes the tendency by which we attribute others’ behavior in a given situation to their personality traits rather than external factors, especially negative behavior. For example, if a colleague is late to a meeting, we think that he/she is lazy or irresponsible.By contrast, we attribute our lapses in behavior almost always to external circumstances. Given the same situation,  when we are late to a meeting, we believe that it’s just a bad day.

The discussion of these hidden forces reminds me of an article on Harvard Business Review, which I’ve read so long ago. In fact it’s the first of its kind I’ve read and it was an enlightening revelation. The article is called “The Hidden Traps of Decision Making”. Some of the traps are:

  • Anchoring – giving disproportionate weightage to the first information received
  • Status Quo Bias – the tendency to maintain the status quo
  • Framing effect – the way a problem is framed affects the decision in a big way

You can read the full article here and enlighten yourself.

There are many other interesting things that underlie our thinking and shape our behavior. David Meyers’ Exploring Social Psychology is a wonderful book that explains several phenomena pertaining to our behavior with others. It’s a must read for anyone interested in understanding the inherent players of social behaviors. There’s an amazing course called “Social Pyschology” on Coursera, covering the same and more material. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take it both the times it was offered during the past two years. I compensated a little, by reading David Meyer’s book and I must say I’m immensely rewarded. I’ll cover the book in a separate blogpost.

Part 2 of Science of Everyday Thinking series.

Part 1




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