Function of cognitive biases

In this lesson students learn about the concept of cognitive biases as well as a number of important cognitive biases that may affect our well-being and social interactions, identify their causes in evolutionary history, their functions, and reflect on how to cope with cognitive biases.

Psychologists have discovered that our mind has many tendencies to perceive and interpret the world in a certain way. These tendencies have become known as “cognitive biases”. Psychologists have identified a lot of them – up to almost 200, but many can be grouped according to types or according to the kinds of functions that they seem to have. There is also mixed evidence for the existence of some cognitive biases, and most of them are probably only observable in particular situations.

Cognitive biases also seem to exist for a reason – they allow us to function in a complex world that is full of information that is constantly changing, and they are probably the result of our individual learning throughout our development as well as certain tendencies that we may have inherited from our evolutionary past (as social mammals/primates). 

However, cognitive biases generally tend to function just “good enough” to allow us to survive overall. That means that often they can also make “mistakes”, or function in a way that leads to negative outcomes for ourselves and others.

Some psychologists have defined critical thinking as “thinking intended to overcome cognitive biases” (Lilienfeld et al., 2009). Therefore, to cultivate in students the ability for critical thinking and to apply this ability across various and novel contexts, it seems essential to raise awareness about the ubiquity of our cognitive biases, and to explore with them ways how we can deal with them such that we can reduce their sometimes very negative consequences.

Research on “debiasing” (helping people overcome cognitive biases) considers some ways to achieve this: training about how to notice and overcome particular biases in particular contexts, or changing the environment or the types of information that people are exposed to to make them more likely to make better decisions (similar to the concept of nudging).

Awareness about cognitive biases that are particularly related to how we perceive our social world is also relevant for competencies such as empathy, perspective taking, and collaboration competency.

Author: Susan Hanisch

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