Cognitive Bias - As Bad As Our Biases Would Have Us Believe?

Over the course of my work as an educator, often with very clever and experienced practitioners I have heard several saying the words; “but that might just be my bias”. These words have made me curious and so I thought it might be useful to explore what biases are.

Research in human bias really started in the early 70s. The basis of this research was to explore why humans, and in particular humans who were seen as expert, have made judgements that have led to very poor outcomes. This exploration has often led to identifying that available knowledge and evidence was missed or simply ignored by practitioners who relied on work-based heuristics (rules of thumb) applied because of cognitive bias. This outcome of this research suggests that we have the capacity to become slaves to our biases and tacit heuristics unless we spend more time engaged in thoughtful deliberation. In essence, Heuristics and Biases (H&B) are typically presented as being 'bad' for human decision making performance. (see; Kahneman, 2011)

However, and it is a big however, researchers in expert naturalistic decision making (NDM) suggest the H&B research is flawed. This is because the studies designed to capture biases have typically used simplistic laboratory studies with participants who would be classed as novice in those tasks. Their own research suggests that when experts (or people with expertise) are given the same tasks biases are typically overridden. In other words, people with expertise in making decisions in tight time frames are not hamstrung with bias, they make good decisions much more often than not. Indeed, their expertise is often based around the capacity to make good decisions in tight time frames. (see; Klein, 2008)

Finally, there are other researchers who note that because biases are so prevalent in human behaviour they must have evolved because they were useful in human behaviour. So instead of being simply concerned by them we should perhaps also recognise their usefulness as well. (see; Haselton, Nettle, & Andrews, 2015)

In summary, therefore, when you are quick to make a decision this may be a bias playing out through your judgements and into behaviours. However, it is also possible, if not more so if you have experience and expertise, that it is simply your expertise that allows you to shortcut to a 'correct' action. The key appears to be acknowledging when there is a need to be more considered in taking a view about a coaching task. This should be led by recognising when you are going beyond your expertise and relying instead on poor assumptions and/or guesswork to form a judgement and make a decision (see; Abraham and Collins 2011).

To help you get a handle on bias I have produced a summary in table 4 of seven important biases (there are actually well over 100 biases identified in the H&B literature). However, rather than just seeing them as negative we have offered some pros and cons of how they can play out.

Hindsight bias
We are rarely (if ever) able to make judgements and decisions definitively knowing what the outcome of that judgement will be (i.e. with the benefit of hindsight). However, humans can be biased in only looking at the quality of judgement with the benefit of hindsight. e.g. post hoc journalism, “only time will tell if it was a good decision”.
Pro: Post hoc evidence can be important indicators of good or poor practice
Con: Judgements made about practice that are unfair due to not being in full possession of important information accounted for in the initial decision. Furthermore hindsight rarely acknowledges the pressure of having to make a judgement without benefit of hindsight
Sunk-cost bias
Prior investment of resources predicts future investment of resources even in light of evidence to that this is not a good idea. I.e. like trying to fill in sink hole, or “I’ve put too much time and effort into this to let it fail now”
Pro: Perseverance in face of adversity when we don’t actually know what the future holds
Con: Refusal to change tack in face of evidence and therefore wasting resources (knowledge, time, money etc.)
Availability bias
Humans can be heavily influenced by important knowledge that they have recently come across even if prior knowledge may in fact be more reliable. e.g. Spending lots of money on security after being broken into. Buying into the latest and greatest shiny thing from consultants
Pro: It may be expedient to work with most recent knowledge even if it may be distracting from longer term goals
Con: When working in human development it is very easy to be drawn into firefighting problems as they arise at the expense of longer term development
Anchoring or
Framing bias
How information is presented seems to affect the way in which we perceive other information (e.g. consider how we use assessment to get attention).
The way in which we frame a problem (in much the same way anchoring does) will impact on our willingness and ability to account for information that wasn’t presented. Politicians are very good at exploiting this.
Pro: Anchoring and framing can be useful when trying to create an argument to allow for future broader discussion (i.e. a lecture or debate)
Con: Alternative opinions are closed down or not explored leaving many ‘stones left unturned’
Bandwagon bias
When a movement begins that appears to be important/interesting people often jump on without much thought. Have a look at
Pro: Can be useful when trying to create a group view that is thought to be beneficial for the group. Can be useful to show that you are part of the group and not fighting the group
Con: Better ideas may not be bought into because they are not as popular. It can be difficult to swim against the tide even when you want to/should do
Conservatism bias
Unwillingness to change one’s belief even when presented with new evidence that a belief should be changed. “when faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof” (Galbraith, 2002)
Pro: Just because new evidence or ideas emerge does not necessarily mean beliefs must be changed. Resisting change for change sake can be very important.
Con: Leads to a lack of reflection on what may be poor practice and assumptions go untested.
Confirmation bias/Myside bias
We actively search for information or people that fit or agree with our own ideas and ignore that which doesn’t
Pro: There is comfort and importance in having peers agree with our views. If we cannot make decisions with the benefit of hindsight then the next best thing is to have them tested by our peers.
Con: If you find yourself agreeing with everyone in a room, find a new room. If you don’t you’ll miss something.
Table 1: Summary of seven important human biases.

One Final Thought...
The final comment is to acknowledge how often biases are presented as being a bad thing for humans. Or put it another way, they are rarely presented in a neutral fashion. It is then interesting to note how people respond to these presentations. Even (especially?) with discussion of bias we should acknowledge their potential skewing of how we think about them.

A summary and list (with a very useful and largely neutral diagram) of cognitive biases can be found on wikipedia:

Abraham, A., & Collins, D. (2011). Taking the Next Step: Ways Forward for Coaching Science. Quest63(4), 366–384.
Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D., & Andrews, P. W. (2015). The Evolution of Cognitive Bias. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (pp. 724–746). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. LondonB005MJFA2W-0-EBOK: Penguin.
Klein, G. (2008). Naturalistic decision making. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society50(3), 456–460.

Footnote: I have referred to myself in this work through the use of 'I'. The original work was part of some teaching work that was also delivered with my colleagues Dr Bob Muir and Dr Dave Piggott


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