The 2 most dangerous cognitive biases (and how to avoid them)

How could I have been so stupid? How did I end up here?

You sure asked yourself similar questions many times.

Why do I have to keep working with annoying clients? Why am I not able to leave this job and pursue my creative career? Why can’t I make any progress?

Hidden forces pull us away from good decisions. It’s not our imagination. They’re called cognitive biases.

Our brain evolved them to help us deal with our original environment. One where our lives were under constant threat from predators, nature, other people.

Unfortunately, our current environment can’t compare. Cognitive biases can still help. But in many situations they have become counterproductive.

I feel two of them are particularly dangerous, both for long term and short term decisions.

They are the negativity and availability bias. In this issue we’ll see what they are, how they affect our decisions and how to avoid them.

We’ll see what they are, how they contribute to bad decisions and how to work around them.

Bad news wins

According to Wikipedia, the negativity bias is:

the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things

It’s the reason why a single negative comment under a post or a video disrupts your day. It overshadows hundreds of compliments and months of increasing engagement.

This instinct allowed us to survive in a life-threatening environment. If you heard a sudden rustling while walking in the woods and overlooked it, you could turn into some wild beast’s lunch.

If you overreacted and ran away, maybe you wasted some energy. But you surely saved your life.

What you see is all there is

The above title is the basic rule of our instinctual thinking system, from “Thinking, fast and slow”, by Daniel Kahneman. It describes how the availability bias (or availability heuristic) works.

Kahneman defines it as

the process of judging frequency by “the ease with which instances come to mind.”

What instances are easier to bring to mind?

  • The more salient ones.
  • Dramatic events.
  • Personal experiences, compared to experiences lived and told by other people.

For example, in business, “overnight” success stories often take the spotlight. They are dramatic, sound like movies. When we plan our business strategy, only those stories come to mind.

We try to emulate their tactics. But often they don’t fit our situation. Other less spectacular stories could have taught us more useful lessons.

This mechanism can have similar origins to the negativity bias. An exaggerated importance to dramatic events could have kept us safe.

Why is this a dangerous duo?

The book “Enlightenment now” demonstrates how we are living in the best time ever. Mortality rates, violence, poverty are at their lowest in human history. Longevity, literacy, innovation rate are at their highest.

This is far from what we read, hear or see in the news or in our social media feeds. But it’s supported by hundreds of pages of historical data. And this book isn’t the only source supporting it.

The problem is that the news and social media feeds are filtering reality. Their filters followed the wrong incentives:

  • their revenues come from ads,
  • more attention brings more advertisers,
  • negativity attracts more people.

So, they focus on bad news, controversy, gloomy predictions. The pandemic has been a bounty for mass media!

Exposure to news and social media, coupled with the availability bias, generates an availability cascade. A self confirming vicious cycle that persuades us things are far worse than they really are.

You can see how it’s hard to make the right decisions in this environment. It’s easier to retreat in our comfort zone and avoid any kind of (imaginary) risk. Disregarding negative long term consequences.

This is particularly damaging for creators. Every meaningful project brings some risk, some amount of hope in a better future.

When everyone is saying things are going down, how can you muster the courage?

Awareness is power

All cognitive biases are strong automatisms we can’t stop. Kahneman thinks it’s very hard to fix them.

This doesn’t mean we are doomed. There are several methods we can use to reduce their effects on our judgement.

I tried all of them. If you put in the time and effort and practice them regularly, the improvement is guaranteed.

Information diet

Choose your information sources wisely.

First of all, avoid breaking news. They thrive on dramatic and negative events.

They also waste your attention. Important news remain important in the long term. No need to stay on top of everything.

Avoid all authors and media outlets focusing on fear and controversy. They are easy to spot: 90% of headlines on their sites have a negative connotation, use overly dramatic language, express an “us versus them” mindset.

This doesn’t mean you have to were rose-colored glasses. But the negativity bias is genetic. It’s wise to counter balance it with a little optimism in excess.

I stopped consuming news years ago. Not once I missed an important event. They come up to the surface in one way or another.

It didn’t even compromise my judgement about current events. It’s actually improved. My opinions are more balanced because I’m less hit by the availability bias.

I told you what to avoid, but what information should you consume instead?

Start from books. Choose the ones published at least one year ago that still get great reviews and are often recommended online. Books about history, important figures, psychology, science, economics, teach you the first principles that help you understand reality and improve your thinking.

For the same reason, look for in depth posts and podcasts. You won’t be able to choose them based on reviews. Try many different ones and quit as soon as they prove disappointing.

Decision journal

“What gets measured, gets managed” Peter Drucker

This quote is true for decisions, too. It’s hard to measure them exactly. Outcomes can often be measured but you shouldn’t fall into the outcome bias.

You can make the best possible decision and implement it flawlessly. Sadly, many factors outside your control can still bring a negative outcome.

You can document your important decisions:

  • what is the problem to be solved?
  • What is the expected outcome?
  • What alternatives did you consider?
  • What brought you to the final decision?

When you have an outcome, compare it to the expected one. In case something went wrong, ask yourself whether and how the negativity or availability bias affected your judgement.

You’ll be more aware of them in the future.

Take your time

In his book, Kahneman explains that the “slow thinking system” can go beyond biases. But it requires intention and time. Rush feeds biases.

You’ll rarely (never) deal with life or death decisions. So force yourself to wait before making any slightly important decision. Document your thoughts and revise them after some days to filter out biases.

Talk

External points of view will cut through your biases. Share your reasoning with someone that knows you, or went through the same situation, but is not involved.

I do it all the time with my cofounder. Each one of us is fully responsible for some task or area. We decide independently but discuss about ideas and difficult decisions.

We regularly fix each other’s biases.

Availability bias is easy

The availability bias contains in itself a powerful countermove. It’s triggered by salient, dramatic and personal events.

So, you can always ask yourself if some recent event is affecting your thinking. Then counteract accordingly.

It’s hard but worth it

Being aware of your biases and trying to overcome them seems difficult. It is.

It requires constant alertness and effortful thinking. But the more you do it, the more it becomes second-nature.

It won’t ever become easy. It’s a battle against your deeper instincts. But it’s worth it. Relentlessly improving your decisions will give you an edge hard to match.

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