What Is a Cognitive Bias? Definition and Examples

Mental Mistakes and Errors

Thinking about cognitive biases
Image: Kent Yoshimura (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgments that people make. Sometimes these biases are related to memory. The way you remember an event may be biased for a number of reasons and that in turn can lead to biased thinking and decision-making. In other instance, cognitive biases might be related to problems with attention. Since attention is a limited resource, people have to be selective about what they pay attention to in the world around them.

Because of this, subtle biases can creep in and influence the way we see and think about the world.

How Do Cognitive Biases Work?

When we are making judgments and decisions about the world around us, we like to think that we are objective, logical, and capable of taking in and evaluating all the information that is available to us. The reality is, however, that our judgments and decisions are often riddled with errors and influenced by a wide variety of biases. The human brain is both remarkable and powerful, but certainly subject to limitations. Cognitive biases are just one type of fundamental limitation on human thinking.

A cognitive bias is a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. Cognitive biases are often a result of our attempt to simplify information processing. They are rules of thumb that help us make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed.

Unfortunately, these biases sometimes trip us up, leading to poor decisions and bad judgments.

What Causes Cognitive Biases?

If you had to think about every possible option when making a decision, it would probably take a lot of time to make even the simplest choice. Becuase of the sheer complexity of the world around us and the amount of information in the environment, it is necessary sometimes to rely on some mental shortcuts that allow us to act quickly.

Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, but it is these mental shortcuts that often play a major contributing role. These mental shortcuts are known as heuristics, and while they can often be surprisingly accurate, they can also lead to errors in thinking. Social pressures, individual motivations, emotions, and limits on the mind's ability to process information can also contribute to these biases.

These biases are not necessarily all bad, however. Psychologists believe that many of these biases serve an adaptive purpose - they allow us to reach decisions quickly. This can be vital if we are facing a dangerous or threatening situation. If you are walking down a dark alley and spot a dark shadow that seems to be following you, a cognitive bias might lead you to assume that it is a mugger and that you need to exit the alley as quickly as possible. The dark shadow may have simply been caused by a flag waving in the breeze, but relying on mental shortcuts can often get you out of the way of danger in situations where decisions need to be made quickly.

A Few Types of Cognitive Biases

Learn more about a few of the most common types of cognitive biases that can distort your thinking.

Cognitive Bias vs. Logical Fallacy

People sometimes confuse cognitive biases with logical fallacies, but the two are not the same. A logical fallacy stems from and error in a logical argument, while a cognitive bias is rooted in thought processing errors often arising from problems with memory, attention, attribution, and other mental mistakes.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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