The Cognitive Biases That Hurt Our Relationships
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “How are there so many idiots in the world who can’t seem to see what is right in front of them?” You’re thinking, “Why do *I* seem to be blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see truth through a torrential downpour of bullshit?” You’re thinking “What can I do to make people understand? How can I make them see what I see?”
I know you think this because everyone thinks this. The perception that we understand life in a way that nobody else does is an inherent facet of our psychology. That disconnect we feel is universal.
Here’s a factoid to ruin your Sunday morning breakfast: the human mind did not evolve to be good at understanding truth—the human mind evolved to be good at understanding what is most useful for the human mind. And spoiler alert: what is useful is usually not true.1
It turns out that we are not very objective in our beliefs. It turns out that our perceptions and reasoning are heavily influenced by cognitive biases.
Imagine that you’re looking at an image on a computer screen of a big party somewhere. Now, imagine that you tell the computer you want to believe that everyone with blonde hair is an asshole. And let’s say as if by magic, the computer’s algorithm gradually edits the image to make it look as though each blonde-haired person has a smug, condescending, highly-punchable look on their face.
Now, pretend you tell the computer screen you want to feel rich. Voila! The computer morphs the clothing and jewelry and hairstyles of everyone in the picture to look drab, cheap, and mundane.
Now, let’s say you tell the computer that this party, whatever it is, clearly sucks. And like a genie obeying your wishes, the party is quickly morphed into a stultifying, tepid affair. People appear to be slouched in corners, staring intently at their feet. Few conversations are happening and the ones that are seem forced.
This computer is not a computer at all. It is your subconscious. And like the computer, your subconscious alters what you perceive in highly predictable ways. Our moods color our experiences. Our identities steer our attention. Our self-interest dictates our interpretations.
So when we sit around and think, “If only people could see what I see to be true,” without knowing it, we mean that literally—people can’t see exactly what we see.
You and I can look at the same scene of the same party, yet our internal graphic design software alters it in completely different ways.
This graphic design software of our minds is what psychologists call “cognitive biases,” and we all have them. Below is a summary of some of the more prominent cognitive biases and how they affect our perceptions. Understanding these biases is important because they not only help us stop lying to ourselves, but they also help us empathize and understand the perspectives of others.
This list of biases is by no means exhaustive.2 But these are arguably the most common and important cognitive biases that we regularly fall victim to.
Table of Contents
1. Confirmation Bias
What it is: The confirmation bias is when you look for and only use “facts” that support your pre-existing beliefs while, at the same time, ignoring any information to the contrary.3 This is often thought of as “cherrypicking,” although cherrypicking facts to support one’s views is usually done consciously. Confirmation bias happens unconsciously. If you believe your lucky color is yellow, you will actually start noticing the color yellow more often.
And it’s not that you’re wrong either. There are tons of yellow things in your life and some of them are involved in your positive experiences.
So the problem with confirmation bias is not that you’re wrong, it’s that you’re not seeing the whole picture.
The strange—but fascinating—thing about the confirmation bias is that it seems to run rampant when information is more available to people. That might seem counterintuitive on the surface. After all, more information should lead to better, truer beliefs, right?
Well, no. The existence of the confirmation bias actually predicts the opposite: more information creates more opportunities to cherrypick the “facts” we use to support our beliefs. So, exposure to more information actually polarizes beliefs.4 This explains, in a nutshell, why the internet is a festering shit-heap for political discourse. Instead of changing our beliefs to adapt to new information, we adapt new information to fit our beliefs.
In fact, the easy availability of confirmation bias online has created what researchers call “echo chambers,” where people continually only get fed information that supports their pre-existing views.5 Echo chambers are good for the big tech companies because they keep you fat and happy on their platforms. But they’re bad for truth.
How confirmation bias makes you an asshole: The confirmation bias generally causes us to become over-confident in our beliefs, thus potentially making you an insufferable dick in a conversation about anything even mildly controversial. You will think to yourself, “But look at all of this evidence saying I’m right!” while being completely oblivious to all of the evidence against your view. Similarly, the person you’re talking to (or god forbid, commenting under) will be in a similar situation, aware of all of the evidence supporting their position, while oblivious to yours.
You will both be looking at the same picture, yet each seeing what you want to see.
But there are other, more subtle ways the confirmation bias fucks up our lives, as well.
For example, confirmation bias can play a role in who we allow into our lives.6 If you think all men are pigs or all women are two-faced, you’re more likely to date a lot of pig-headed men or two-faced women.
Because your belief that all men/women suck will cause you to only notice shitty behavior from that particular gender, meanwhile ignoring all of the caring, compassionate people you could be meeting.
Or, if you believe the world is a flaming pile of goat turds, you will spend all of your waking hours obsessing over everything that’s wrong with the world and conclude that—lo and behold—it’s a flaming pile of goat turds. Who knew?!
If confirmation bias were a family member, it would be: Your overly-judgmental mother who never misses a chance to say, “See? I knew it,” even though she was wrong a hundred other times.
84 people had breakthroughs last week. This week, will one of them be you?
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2. Negativity Bias
What it is: The negativity bias is the tendency to notice what’s wrong with everything far more often than noticing what is good about a situation.7 You could call it pessimism except that it’s not even about believing things will go bad. It’s actually seeing bad things as more important and obvious than good things.
Evolutionarily speaking, this is an adaptive strategy when you think about it. The caveman who noticed every potential problem or crisis is the caveman who survived. The caveman who was perpetually grateful for the beauty of the world and kicked back to appreciate how bitchin’ these blackberries taste, well, he was the one that got eaten by the angry pack of hyenas.
The negativity bias shows up in all sorts of different forms. We perceive the loss of something as more painful than the joy of gaining it. We take negative feedback more seriously than positive feedback. We see pessimistic predictions as more intelligent and credible than positive ones. We form bad impressions and believe negative stereotypes quicker than we believe positive ones. We weigh negative behaviors far more heavily than positive behaviors when judging someone’s character.
The list goes on and on… in fact, in every domain psychologists have researched, our minds naturally give extra weight to negative experiences.
How the negativity bias makes you an asshole: The danger with the negativity bias is that we lose perspective on what’s actually a problem and what’s just us losing perspective.
Think the yuppie douchebag with an otherwise cushy life that flies off the handle when the barista puts too much caramel swirl in his coffee.
Or the girl who complains when the wifi isn’t working on the plane, oblivious to the fact that she’s experiencing the miracle of human flight.
But it’s not just the minor inconveniences in life. The negativity bias creeps into some of our most intimate relationships. The negativity bias is in full effect when you meet someone wonderful but their dirty shoes make you think they’re a slob and you never talk to them again.8 It’s there when you ignore the hundreds of amazing qualities your partner brings to the relationship, obsessing instead over that one thing you wish they would change.
Negativity bias can extend to large organizations and even societies too.
There’s an old saying in management that even when things improve, the complaining employees never go away—they just start complaining about better and better things.
I think that’s true for the world, at large. In my book, Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope, I describe a lot of evidence pointing to undeniable progress by almost every metric across the world.
It’s easy to forget this, but it was only a few generations ago that most of the planet lived in some form of slavery or extreme poverty. Wars ripped across continents murdering tens of millions of people. By almost every standard, life today is the best it has ever been in human history.9
Yet, if you spend a few hours on Twitter, you would think the apocalypse has come and gone and is coming back again.
If the negativity bias were a family member, it would be: Your ungrateful teenage daughter, for whom you provide clothes, food, housing, education, and money for all sorts of enriching activities and hobbies. And yet she still says you “ruined her life” because of that one time you talked to her friends while wearing a bathrobe and Crocs.
I mean, what kind of bias makes you hate on Crocs?
3. Incentive-Caused Bias
What it is: Humans are incredibly responsive to rewards and punishments. We’re like dogs, salivating at the very thought of a tasty treat and whimpering away with our tails between our legs with even the threat of something unpleasant happening. And just like a dog will piss on your ficus plant unless you give him a better option, we humans will piss all over everything unless a better option presents itself.
As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
The incentive-caused bias causes us to make irrational, stupid, or unethical decisions due to our own incentives.10
There’s a causal chain that tends to happen within our minds. We feel good emotions about things that benefit us. We feel bad emotions for things that don’t benefit us. Similarly, we tend to rationalize reasons to pursue what feels good and make up reasons to avoid what feels bad.
Ergo, if our incentives are lined up in such a way that we benefit from doing something, our minds set to work convincing ourselves that it must be a good thing to do. Normal people regularly ignore ethical or broader social concerns because they stand to immediately benefit from some terrible action.11
It’s easy for you and me to sit here and say, “What a bunch of assholes, I would never do that!” But we would. In fact, we do. We just can’t see how we do it because our minds cut us off from seeing it.
How the incentive-caused bias makes you an asshole: I’m not sure the incentive-caused bias makes us assholes so much as it just goes to show how inherently awful we can be under certain conditions.
Think of the CEO who’s incentivized with stock options and a “golden parachute” to take short-term risks at the expense of the long-term health of the company.12 They make more money for themselves now, but they put the company and all the employees at greater risk down the road.
Or take the fucked up prison system in the United States with its quotas and even privatized detention centers. They’re incentivized to actually keep more people in prison for longer periods of time and discourage rehabilitation or education that could prevent the prisoners from returning for future crimes.13
Taken to its extreme, the incentive-caused bias can turn us into not just assholes, but monsters. Many of the atrocities of the holocaust were not carried out by high-ranking, evil psychopaths in the Nazi military, but by regular foot soldiers who were incentivized to “just follow orders.”14
The good news is that we can design more intelligent systems that remove bad incentives and promote good ones. As the incentive-caused bias shows us, humans are responsive to carrots and sticks. We just need to think more carefully about when and how to use them.
If this bias were a family member, it would be: Your dickhead uncle who makes a shitload of money in highly questionable ways flipping real estate, yet somehow finds the time to lecture you about how lazy everybody else is because they’re not as successful as him.
4. Actor-Observer Bias
What it is: The actor-observer bias is the tendency to explain our own negative behavior based on external causes we can’t control while explaining the negative behavior of others based on internal causes they can control.15,16
So basically, if you fuck something up, you search for external reasons to explain said fuck-up so it doesn’t feel like it’s “your fault.” But when someone else fucks up—even if they do the exact same thing you did!—you’ll likely blame it on them being a terrible human being.
When I cut off cars in traffic, it’s because I have an important meeting and I can’t be late. But when you cut cars off in traffic, it’s because you’re a selfish, reckless prick.
How the actor-observer bias makes you an asshole: If you couldn’t already tell, the actor-observer bias turns you into a giant, hypocritical assface in so many ways, it’s hard to single out just a couple examples.
It happens when you argue with your partner, justifying your own bad behavior yet condemning them for theirs.
It happens when you justify cheating a little bit on an exam at school because you had so many other responsibilities that you couldn’t study, but when the other kid gets busted for cheating, you judge them for their dishonesty.
It happens when you show up late and blame traffic, but when your friends show up late you take it as a personal affront to your dignity as a human.
If the actor-observer bias were a family member, it would be: Your asshole older brother who used to beat the living snot out of you every time you annoyed him or messed with his stuff. But then, when you sneak into his room and steal his baseball bat and walk up behind him and crack him over the head and he goes to the hospital and your parents act as though you just killed him, everyone thinks you are the evil one…
Oh, uh… wait. You never did that? Umm… next bias, please!
5. Group Attribution Bias
What it is: The group attribution bias causes us to assume a person’s traits are similar to the traits of the group(s) to which they belong.17 The most obvious examples of the group-attribution bias are stereotypes based on race or gender.18
It’s probably worth mentioning that your brain consumes a lot of energy. There’s a lot of sensory data and information to sift through. As a result, all of these cognitive biases are “shortcuts” the brain takes to save itself time and energy.19 Traditionally, these shortcuts have been useful, especially back in the caveman days. It’s only in modern social contexts that they begin to cause problems. And this is perhaps most true with the group-attribution bias.
How it makes you an asshole: Obviously, the group attribution bias can easily turn us racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever. That’s pretty self-explanatory assholish behavior (or at least it should be).
But the peculiar thing about the group attribution bias isn’t so much that we fall victim to it—we all do pretty easily. (And if you think you don’t, there’s probably some bias to explain that too.)
What’s more interesting is it’s how we try to leverage the group attribution bias to our benefit. The group attribution bias is such an ingrained feature of human nature that not only do we judge others for being parts of perceived groups (even if they’re not anything like those groups) but we also try to identify ourselves socially with groups to raise our own status.
Put another way, we actively attempt to manipulate other people’s group-attribution bias in our favor.
We buy clothes and cars and club memberships and fancy cocktails to show the world that we’re sophisticated or edgy or just so fucking cool that it hurts. We will hang around groups that we want others to associate us with, thinking it will make us look rad by extension. We use slang and idioms and expressions that match our preferred group of choice in hopes that others will identify us as part of that social cohort.
There’s nothing wrong with hanging out with people who raise your status, by the way. It’s when you’re using them for the sole purpose of raising your status that makes you an asshole. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with noting that some people are part of some broader group or category. It’s when you judge them as individuals as you would judge the group (i.e., bigotry) that you run into trouble.
Simply put, treat each individual as an end in and of themselves, not as a means to some other end.
If this bias were a family member, it would be: Your racist grandpa, who says something awful at a family holiday and then everyone puts their head down and pretends they didn’t hear him say that awful thing he just said.
Can We Overcome Our Cognitive Biases?
Great, so now we know about our cognitive biases, so they shouldn’t be a problem anymore, right?
The truth is, these cognitive biases are an ingrained feature of human nature and can’t be turned off with the flick of a switch. Becoming aware of them is not enough—we must stay aware of them, especially in the triggering moments where we fall victim to them.
Therefore, probably the best tool for managing your biases is your ability to be more mindful in your life.20,21
I know “mindfulness” has become a catch-all buzzword that’s supposed to cure society of all its ills or whatever—and the jury is definitely out on that—but what we’re talking about here is developing a consistent state of self-awareness where you’re able to identify, consider, and question your own thoughts and beliefs consistently.
Noticing your biases is the first step in handling them more effectively. But not only does being more self-aware mean catching your biases as they kick in, it means going deeper and understanding why you seem to lose control of your own thoughts and feelings in the face of them.
A few examples:
- Why are you so prone to the negativity bias and only see the downside of everything? Maybe you have some unresolved resentment you need to work through.
- Why do you get so sucked into believing you are right all the time? Maybe you have deeper-seated insecurities around your own intelligence that you’re trying to cover up.
- Is the group-attribution bias serving some desperate need for superiority? Is the desire to feel as though you belong to some group so strong that you’re willing to demonize some other group in order to feel it?
Our cognitive biases are fundamentally embedded in our cognition. They will not go away. The best we can do is learn to tame them, to wrangle them under control so that they serve us. Otherwise, we are doomed to serve them.
- Hoffman, D. (2019). Do we see reality? New Scientist, 243(3241), 34–37.↵
- You can find a more complete list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia’s Cognitive Biases article.↵
- Confirmation bias – APA Dictionary of Psychology↵
- This is known as the “Backfire Effect.” See: Wood, T., Porter, E. (2019). The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes’ Steadfast Factual Adherence. Political Behavior. 41, 135–163↵
- Quattrociocchi, W., Scala, A., & Sunstein, C. R. (2016). Echo Chambers on Facebook. SSRN Electronic Journal.↵
- In the context of dating and attraction, confirmation bias is part of the “assortment effect,” where people tend to attract and date people similar in beliefs to themselves. See: Watson, D., Klohnen, E.C., Casillas, A., Nus Simms, E., Haig, J. and Berry, D.S. (2004), Match Makers and Deal Breakers: Analyses of Assortative Mating in Newlywed Couples. Journal of Personality, 72: 1029-1068↵
- Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370.↵
- Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296–320.↵
- For an exhaustive argument of all of the ways the world is better, see: Pinker, Steven (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. New York, NY: Penguin Books.↵
- Holmstrom, B., & Milgrom, P. (1994). The Firm as an Incentive System. The American Economic Review, 84(4), 972–991.↵
- The most famous instance of this was Milgram’s infamous shocking experiments. See: Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378. Please note that the results of Milgram’s famous experiment have recently come under question. For critique, see: Perry, Gina. (2013). Deception and Illusion in Milgram’s accounts of the Obedience Experiments. Theoretical and Applied Ethics. 2.↵
- A golden parachute is a term used for when a company executive is given a lump sum of money after they’re forced to leave before the end of their contract, usually due to poor performance. The rationale is that the executive was hired to take risks and, therefore, shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes—i.e., they get a “parachute” to bail them out. But it’s not hard to see how this might lead to some badly-structured incentives that cause a CEO to be selfish at the expense of the rest of the company.↵
- Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons. The Sentencing Project.↵
- For a famous account of this, see: Arendt, Hannah (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.↵
- Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.↵
- A related bias is the fundamental attribution bias (aka, the fundamental attribution error). It’s similar in that it tends to make you explain others’ behavior in overly simple terms of their character and personality while disregarding any external factors that might influence their behavior.↵
- Group attribution error – APA Dictionary of Psychology.↵
- See also the gender bias, which is kind of the same thing as the group attribution bias, but applied only to gender.↵
- Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D., & Murray, D. R. (2015). The Evolution of Cognitive Bias. In The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (pp. 1–20). American Cancer Society.↵
- Kiken, L. G., & Shook, N. J. (2011). Looking Up: Mindfulness Increases Positive Judgments and Reduces Negativity Bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 425–431.↵
- Frewen, P. A., Evans, E. M., Maraj, N., Dozois, D. J. A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting Go: Mindfulness and Negative Automatic Thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(6), 758–774.↵