A cognitive bias is essentially just a mistake in how you process information. It causes you to misinterpret or misunderstand information and the end result is that you come to a wrong decision or conclusion without realizing you made any kind of mistake. It can be difficult to realize they exist, especially since some of them are so very odd. But the fact they can make your life harder means it’s worth identifying them so you can hopefully work past them.
10. The Well-Traveled Road Effect
Let’s say you need to go across town to your favorite restaurant. There’s the way you always drive to get there and then there’s the way your friend says is much faster. So you take your friend’s shortcut and realize that it’s no shortcut at all, but much longer. When you finally arrive at the restaurant, you check your watch and see you’re there about two minutes sooner than you would have been if you took the normal route. How is that possible?
The Well-Traveled Road Effect convinces us that the route we are familiar with is faster than other routes, even when it’s not. It happens because the route you know is so familiar it has no surprises and nothing to hold your interest. You can effectively shut your brain off as you travel. But a new route has all kinds of new things. New traffic, new landmarks, new scenery.
There is so much to engage your senses you feel like you’re spending more time on this new route, even if it’s legitimately faster than the old route. And when you travel the old route, you will often underestimate how long it takes to get places, which can lead to you being late.
9. The Spotlight Effect
Have you ever gone out somewhere and felt like everyone was staring at you? Do you have food on your face? Is your fly undone? A stain on your shirt? What the hell is everyone looking at?
While it’s possible any of those things could have drawn the attention of strangers, odds are you’re suffering from the Spotlight Effect. That terrible little cognitive bias convinces you that people are paying more attention to your embarrassing habits than they really are. Not only does it make you feel like people are noticing something you feel self-conscious about, but you’ll also feel like those people care far more than they really do.
In tests of how this works, a person was asked to wear a shirt they found embarrassing and then do a task in a room of strangers. They were then asked how many people they felt noticed their embarrassing shirt. They guessed 50%. Only 25% of the people noticed. In another study when they wore a less embarrassing shirt, participants still anticipated that 50% of people would notice but that time only 10% of people did. Meaning no one really cares what you look like, even if you’re convinced they do.
Do you know anyone who is remarkably smart but has a bad habit of doing dumb things? It’s not all that uncommon and may be a result of something called dysrationalia. This is what happens when you are highly intelligent but not necessarily highly rational because they two don’t have to go hand in hand. In fact, being highly intelligent can make it worse because you may be convinced you’re so smart you can’t be making a terrible decision and you’ll be able to find evidence to support your bad decisions as a result.
In one test, participants would get a cash reward if they blindly pulled a red jelly bean out of a bowl. One bowl had nine white and one red. The second had 92 white and eight red. They were also told how many were in each. Even knowing the odds, between 30% and 40% chose the larger bowl which had worse odds, simply because there were more red jelly beans in it.
Dysrationalia is the same thing that makes you buy something expensive when it’s on sale because it’s not as expensive as it could be. Or bet money on black on the roulette wheel because it was red four times in a row. There’s no intelligence in the choices at all, but we still make them.
7. The IKEA Effect
Have you ever wondered why IKEA is as popular as it is? Or why anything homemade is generally considered better than the alternative? The IKEA Effect holds the key. It causes you to feel something is more valuable or important if you made it or assembled it yourself.
Of course it’s not weird to be proud of making something yourself, but studies have shown that people who assemble things themselves often hold them in as high regard as similar things made by experts, no matter how amateurish they may be, and often assume others will feel the same way. The effect only works if the task is finished, of course. If a person fails to create a thing, or its subsequently destroyed, the IKEA effect goes away.
6. The Google Effect
While some biases are as old as mankind, others are new adaptations of the world in which we live. One such bias is known as the Google Effect and it’s something of an insidious problem. Also known as digital amnesia, the Google Effect causes you to forget things that are fairly easy to look up online. Basically, your brain has decided it doesn’t need to hold on to some stuff because Google knows it already, so you can just look it up later. Effectively, we’re outsourcing memory to Google.
In one simple test, participants in two groups were shown trivia statements. One group was told that they needed to remember what they read because the info would be deleted. The other was led to believe it could be looked up later if they needed it. The group that was told to remember the information remembered far more than the other group as a result, which parallels what we know about things like students studying for exams. They often don’t retain the info because they believe they can Google it when they need it.
5. The Halo Effect
If you want to see the Halo Effect in action, just go on social media any day at any time and it shouldn’t be too hard to track down. It’s the tendency to think someone who is pretty on the outside must be pretty on the inside. So your brain is tricked into thinking an attractive person must also have a good personality or, more famously, judging a book by its cover.
Technically, the Halo Effect doesn’t even have to relate to looks or personality. Anything that has a feature you find attractive can trigger it, causing you to think good things about it as a whole. A company you like has a new product, you immediately believe the product is good. Your favorite director makes a new movie, you’re convinced the movie will be great.
An experiment back in the 1940s showed how easily people will succumb to this effect. Participants were given descriptions of two people that read as follows:
A: Intelligent – Industrious – Impulsive – Critical – Stubborn – Envious
B: Envious – Stubborn – Critical – Impulsive – Industrious – Intelligent
Participants were asked to detail how they felt about Person A and Person B. Person A was seen in a much more positive light and their shortcomings were dismissed or rationalized while Person B was considered a problem. But you’ll notice that both A and B have the exact same description, just in reverse order.
Thank the idea of first impressions for how the effect was. If your initial impression of something is positive, it really does dictate how your subsequent feelings are formed. Plus, we want to believe we are right, so when we have a good first impression, we seek ways to prove that it’s a justified one.
4. The Rhyme as Reason Effect
Some cognitive biases begin to make sense when you see how a pattern of behavior or misperceptions can give rise to them. But the Rhyme as Reason effect just makes you feel stupid when you hear about it. We tend to perceive a statement as being more truthful if it rhymes. That’s the whole thing. Maybe this is how Johnny Cochran got OJ Simpson off with the whole “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” rhyme during his arguments.
In 1999, the effect was studied when researchers took rhyming aphorisms, just little statements like “woes unite foes” and then reworded them to have the exact same meaning without the rhyme. In this case, “woes unite enemies.” People were asked to read the statements and judge how true they seemed to be. On average, the rhyming ones were judged 22% more valid than those that didn’t rhyme, despite saying literally the exact same thing.
Advertising slogans that rhyme make use of this effect because it does work. A rhyming slogan is deemed more trustworthy and truthful than a non-rhyming slogan, at least as products are concerned. The same was not shown to be true for human rights and environmentalism and that’s probably for the best.
As for why it happens, blame your brain’s tendency to like pretty things. We find rhymes aesthetically pleasing so, even on a subconscious level, we ascribe more value to a statement that sounds nice to our ear, regardless of the content.
3. The Tip of the Tongue Effect
It’s likely we’ve all endured the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon at some point. You know the word you want to say; you understand the context and how to use it, you can even think of related words but that one specific word just eludes you.
When it happens, you may be able to retrieve a surprising amount of information about the word, even beyond how to properly use it in a sentence. Even the first sound and number of syllables will come to mind.
There’s no single cause for why it happens and it can be affected by things as diverse as brain damage and old age as well as just how often you normally use the word. On the upside, the condition is generally a temporary one and at some point the word you’re looking for will come back to you either on its own or with some prompting.
2. The Bandwagon Effect
Remember a few years back when the internet as a whole seemed to hate the band Nickelback? People still write articles about it. But at the same time Nickelback is one of the most successful bands of the last 20 years. They’d sold over 50 million albums by 2011. So how could a hugely popular band also be hugely unpopular? The Bandwagon Effect may be the answer.
When people begin to believe certain things only because other people seem to, that’s the Bandwagon Effect. So it’s not based on any evidence, just perception. And even if you don’t believe that thing, you’ll go along with it because that’s what other people are doing. It’s like a low key brand of mass hysteria peer pressure. It’s also where things like groupthink and herd mentality come into play.
So if the internet keeps telling you that everyone hates Nickelback, then we’ll all get on the bandwagon while the band rolls around in all the money they’ve made from their platinum albums.
1. The Cheerleader Effect
Have you ever seen someone you found attractive in a group of people and then later when you saw them alone they seemed less attractive? Well, that’s your brain playing tricks on you again. The Cheerleader Effect occurs when you perceive a face as being more attractive when there are others around it. Alone, the same face is perceived as less attractive.
This phenomenon is a result of how our brains organize information in sets. You will subconsciously start averaging all of those faces together, which makes them more attractive overall in your mind, than a long face with nothing to compare it to.
This can have practical uses for you in the real world if you’re looking to be perceived as more attractive, say on a dating site. Make a profile that features you with other people and you’ll be perceived as hotter. Of course, when you finally do meet someone and they see you alone you could end up being disappointing.