Automatic Thoughts: Seven Common Cognitive Biases

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BetterUp Studios

8 min


Cognitive bias refers to the way our brains create narratives, or make intuitive leaps that are not always rational.

Cognitive bias is useful because without it, we would have to approach every problem as if we are seeing it for the first time.

However, cognitive bias can often inhibit us from making sound decisions. This is why we also have a rational and more analytical side that helps us think through complex scenarios.

While both systems are powerful, the brain is lazy and likes to take shortcuts when it can. This means that we often end up relying on system 1 even when it's not appropriate.

We are all presented with so much information every day that it is no wonder our brains use shortcuts to make decisions. That said, these shortcuts can often get in the way of your ability to think through the nuances of an obstacle or choice. Recognize cognitive biases to become a more savvy decision maker and navigate life with greater awareness.

Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to these processes as “system 1” (intuition) and “system 2” (reason).

How quickly can you complete this phrase: “War and…”? There are things that you can do on autopilot, such as filling in this type of blank, locating the source of a sound, or making a face when you taste something sour. These responses are fast, automatic, emotional, and unconscious

Now, how quickly can you solve this problem: 189 x 241? Other examples of system 2 processes might include playing chess or trying to back into a tight parking space.

Being aware of how the brain defers to automatic responses can certainly help you recognize when you might need to use more logic in a situation. There are also some specific cognitive biases that everyone should avoid:

1. Functional Fixedness: You do something one way and refuse to see that there might be a better way of doing it. Look closely at your habits and make sure that there aren’t any better alternatives.

2. Fundamental Attribution Error: When something goes wrong, you immediately blame other people for it and refuse to accept any personal responsibility. Avoid this error by practicing awareness of your actions and taking responsibility when appropriate.

3 . Confirmation Bias: You interpret new information in a way that supports your preexisting beliefs. Step outside your biases by taking someone else’s perspective or approaching your beliefs from a new angle.

4. Availability Bias: We tend to make decisions based on information that is readily available, even though that information might not be relevant. Think through and research every piece of information that could contribute to a solution to avoid this bias.

5. Substitution: When faced with a difficult problem, you might accept an answer to a related problem rather than finding a good solution to the main one. Don’t shy away from tackling complex problems head on. Break them down piece-by-piece with others to find the best possible answer.

6. Black and White Framing: You view outcomes as either a loss or gain. Reevaluate outcomes and realize that there is always room for growth, as not every outcome is strictly black-and-white.

7. Anchoring: You latch onto the first piece of information you come across. Remember to assess available information to avoid anchoring and acquire a deeper understanding of the issue.

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