How to make sense of Cognitive Biases

Buster Benson, of Codex Vitae fame, with another great piece:

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

In addition to being a great piece on the merits of its content alone, on a meta level, it is also a great example of the value that good synthesis of existing knowledge can contribute to the way we make sense of the world around us.

The list of cognitive biases Wikipedia page circa August 2016 contained a jumble of about 175 different biases. Buster set out on the heroic task of helping all of us see the forest for the trees.

Here’s a slightly paraphrased and summarized version of Buster’s categorization:

Problem 1: Too much information.

There is just too much information in the world, we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out. Our brain uses a few simple tricks to pick out the bits of information that are most likely going to be useful in some way.

Therefore, we:

  • notice things that are already primed in memory or repeated often
  • notice bizarre/funny/visually-striking/anthropomorphic things more than non-bizarre/unfunny things
  • notice when something has changed
  • are drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs

Problem 2: Not enough meaning.

The world is very confusing, and we end up only seeing a tiny sliver of it, but we need to make some sense of it in order to survive. Once the reduced stream of information comes in, we connect the dots, fill in the gaps with stuff we already think we know, and update our mental models of the world.

Therefore, we:

  • find stories and patterns even in sparse data
  • fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information
  • imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of
  • simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about
  • think we know what others are thinking
  • project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future

Problem 3: Need to act fast.

We’re constrained by time and information, and yet we can’t let that paralyze us. Without the ability to act fast in the face of uncertainty, we surely would have perished as a species long ago. With every piece of new information, we need to do our best to assess our ability to affect the situation, apply it to decisions, simulate the future to predict what might happen next, and otherwise act on our new insight.

Therefore, we:

  • need to be confident in our ability to make an impact and to feel like what we do is important
  • favor the immediate, relatable thing in front of us over the delayed and distant, in order to stay focused
  • are motivated to complete things that we’ve already invested time and energy in
  • are motivated to preserve our autonomy and status in a group, and to avoid irreversible decisions, in order to avoid mistakes

Problem 4: What should we remember?

There’s too much information in the universe. We can only afford to keep around the bits that are most likely to prove useful in the future. We need to make constant bets and trade-offs around what we try to remember and what we forget. For example, we prefer generalizations over specifics because they take up less space. When there are lots of irreducible details, we pick out a few standout items to save and discard the rest. What we save here is what is most likely to inform our filters related to problem 1’s information overload, as well as inform what comes to mind during the processes mentioned in problem 2 around filling in incomplete information. It’s all self-reinforcing.

Therefore, we:

  • edit and reinforce some memories after the fact
  • discard specifics to form generalities
  • reduce events and lists to their key elements
  • store memories differently based on how they were experienced

Since then John Manoogian III has created this beautiful illustration, based on Buster’s post, which was already integrated back into the original Wikipedia entry, and available here in poster-form:


How to make sense of Cognitive Biases

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s