These Are Your Cognitive Biases

Glasses, for this is what, metaphorically, a book like this is: a way of viewing the world more accurately. Thinking, Fast and Slow is among the best nonfiction books. But it is a classic by the Mark Twain definition: a book everyone wants to have read, and no one wants to read. It is rewarding as a skim, and a slow-read, but never as an ordinary read. As phenomenal as the book is—it has been revolutionary in academia—the coherence of how biases and heuristics, that we all have, can change how governance and economics work, is far too complex for an article or any summary or easy set of solutions. The five hundred page Kahneman book is itself an easier summary of decades of prior work.

Though there are some clear lessons. For instance, that merely having people tick a box to opt out of compulsory organ donation rather than tick a box to donate—solves organ shortages and therefore lives. Changing the sequence of questions alters the answers to questionnaires; and the truth is often mistaken for what is familiar and acceptable. Most remarkably, the media meant to keep institutions and governance in-check actually distorts the citizenry perception, the audience’s outlook, on reality as much as it informs of reality. And this is partly due to humans’ divergent selves—a quick, easier, reacting intuitive self and a longer, effortful, rational self.

As valuable as this social science work is—the valid, useful kind of social science, instead of junk thought self help—it nonetheless describes what we are familiar with already. Hence biases and heuristics work to discover just as much as to create knowledge. Yet, to paraphrase one of my heroes, Richard Rorty, it is not the ‘correct’ arguments which change the world, but the most persuasive, new and useful vocabulary. Such a vocabulary is always that of a given epoch’s elites and their pervasive technology; these are the engines and engineers of change. Thus recategorizing and substantiating intuitively known things, in a prestigious vocabulary contributes to changing—possibly—the behaviours behind the words. Emotional rhetoric, biased selection, ethnocentrism, the better treatment of the pretty, epistemological limits, the popularity of the easy to understand and answering the wrong question to that posed are reframed as biases and heuristics. For our culture, as Michel Foucault outlined in The Archaeology of Knowledge, prizes indexing the world, and, as Karl Marx popularised, our culture engineers shape norms. The aforementioned list therefore becomes:

Affect Heuristic

We come to conclusions because of emotions and desires more than we do correspondence to facts. If you want something to carry online make it sensational, and if you want someone to pay attention and believe something the more taboo or rousing, all the better.

Framing bias

Change a word in a questionnaire and you will get a different result.

Ask someone if they have been on any dates recently, then ask about their happiness, and their happiness will be reduced. That, compared to asking happiness before the dating query, changes the metric for their happiness hugely.

Mere Exposure Effect

We like what we are familiar with, even if in a declarative sense we do not like it, we will still give it attention and more reverence. Hence, you can go from disliking to liking, as you really do “get used to it”, or someone becomes more tolerable or even likeable “once you get to know her”. Incidentally, why Trump got in.

Halo Effect

The beautiful earn more, are better treated, and judged to be better people in finances, morals, humour, competence, confidence. Similarly, the presentation of persuasion in an appealing aesthetic form is more likely to have an affect. If this were in Comic Sans font, for instance, it would be less believable.

Availability Heuristic

We come to judgements from what we can recall. We make decisions from the options given to us by contingent time and place. Hence, it seems natural for Tory Austerity capitalism to be the way it is because it is all we have in our memory, from traces of our hearsay or reading about how the economy works—though through documents and comparison to other countries and times reveals this is socially constructed. Austerity does not have to run the same by nature or science: because different yet comparably financial countries offer alternative repertoires. Thus disproving to-nature appeal arguments, for the most minimum taxation for instance. Moreover, appeals to the democracy of the many deciding in referendums is also based on precedent rather than the inevitable, but it comes to seem natural to have referendums merely because we have had some before (recency bias) and as with the mere exposure affect we come to favour and expect them.

An event that is not worth our time or worry becomes inflated because it is presented by the media as worthy, so the risk of visiting London after a terrorist attack becomes inflated into a huge worry because we are exposed to information about terrorists more than nonterrorists. Terror is more available when we think of ‘London’ in light of media—than the more common, yet less re-presented, reality of knife stabbings. The servings of media, often very biased, in America created a store of short-cuts for what is more intuitive than a logical decision for most voters. Along the lines of ‘Trump = Trump, Trump, Trump, bad but a big deal” and “Clinton = not trump, bad”. Through notoriety he became president exactly because all the media served him—even bad advertisement still advertises; exposes him, per the mere exposure effect, and makes him more readily available to the mind of voters than the box of Hillary Clinton.    

Cognitive Ease

We find more acceptable and believe not just what we are familiar with but—inevitably linked—what we find easy to process. Hence, (already a celebrity) President Trump’s speeches in the Fleisch-Kincaid test of ‘readability’ shows nine-year-old level comprehension—they worked so well to get votes, without saying that much factual or even meaningful.  Because they were easy (too easy) to comprehend. This is also why anti-intellectualism and arguments that use fallacies such as “basically you’re saying . . . [something you’re not saying]”, or “that’s like saying [something it is not like]” or criticise the complexity of words or arguments, tend to appeal to the majority in the room or the masses and gain favour; despite being less valid or useful. To the contrary of the ‘give the people what they want’ or ‘the customer is always right’ dictums—given the availability and exposure heuristics—these dictums are pernicious. Lowering the bar becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of actually less understanding and fewer wise decisions. Think of: leaving the 2015 Paris Agreement, limiting NHS serving immigrants.

Given the fallacies of intuitive thinking, exposed by the very academic rigour often criticised, academic rigour is not merely pedantic, nor elite ‘pretension’, but necessary to understand an inevitably somewhat exclusive subject. As W.H Auden said, because everyone can read basic sentences they think they can judge literature and academia, but just imagine the same of arithmetic till-servers judging computational physics algorithms. Just a partial share in a discipline does not justify input of invalid opinion.

As literary critic Karl Krauss said, “The German people do not understand German, and in journalese, I cannot tell them so”.

There are more terms that are forming a terminology for human reason, and unreason:

Intensity Matching

Humans have a vague sense of equivalence and measure, so we think of correspondence and hierarchy of intensities from bright to dim, black and white—we do have a predisposition to polarised thinking. We frame in terms of spectrum and correspondence that can be, very, misleading and, frankly, prejudicial and hateful.  

Regression To The Mean

Everything and everyone will tend toward, its or their, mean average regardless of interventions. So, in military training, the trainers thought by punishing soldiers for their poor performance they worked better next time as a result. When actually, they merely performed more averagely next time so inevitably performed better—the punishment-to-improvement was a misinference of association instead of causation. Graphically, it was an inevitable rise from a very low; unaffected by senior officer punishments. Yet as with the other effects, what we can withdraw from memory affects our decision, and what we can accept. For instance, the oddness that the most famous persons on the planet are Chinese pop stars and Bollywood starlets, is odd because of our contingent Westerness. ‘The’ famous people means our famous people; what is definite to our system of communication merely. 

Optimist Bias and Competition Neglect

Though we are neurologically and genetically set with biases toward resilience or sensitivity, happiness and sadness, we judge ourselves ethnocentrically better than others. We view ourselves, achievements, lives, through the lens of what Sarah Waters calls being “the hero of our own tale”; we believe “that happens to the majority, but not to me”, “other people die of smoking, but not me; take my Nana, for example, she lived a looong time. She was a smoker, you know!”. Or even I’m not one bit sexist or racist or deluded, even though research—like that of Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky—proves I most probably am.

Loss Aversion

Humans have evolved to be more sensitive to loss than to gain. We lament what we lose and value what has been lost even when we did not celebrate it consciously when we had it.

Endowment Affect

Kahneman says we tend to value what we have to the point we would not exchange, say, our house for many houses; or our husband for many husbands, because of preference that does not align with statistical logic. He says we do not think as traders or economists where + is better than – overall in the longer term. But I disagree with him here, that humans are “illogical” for not valuing £5 as the same as £5 of coca-cola, for stealing £3 of crips but never £3 of money, when they are worth the same, is more logical than illogical; the association of value is imposed and more intangible than the use value or sentimental preference—a lot of the time. In saying otherwise it is Kahneman that is biased, heuristic and illogical from what he knows and has learnt to accept and promote by living in a money orientated (rather than bargaining) economy.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we live in a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But I more prefer this phrase – “anyone in a suit, even a stockbroker, can look civilised”.

Memory Salience

We remember the start and end, the most painful and pleasurable whereas the rest falls away into nondeclarative memory. We remember emotional and important and new experiences rather than old, familiar, boring and so-on.

Remembering Self and Experiencing Self

Humans have the present self that is at the moment, and the self that remembers a few of the moments from now, or the past. Neither is superior by nature: for instance, a dementia patient can lead a smiling life with only the experiencing self. Though a remembered self does give meaning, order, to life within our present socio-historical-technological conditions (where words like ‘socio-historical-technological’ are necessary) the expanded self memory offered by photos and reminders can actually detract and deduct from your self rather than contribute to it, a lot of the time—as marvellously argued by Susan Sontag in On Photography.  


When we are asked a question the matter and meaning (the picture and words brought to mind) of the question in the mind of the asker will be different to the matter and meaning of the question in the mind of the asked. To cope with this, often humans will fallaciously substitute the original question for one they favour answering more, so “do you love your children? . . .” becomes “do I look after my children? Yes”, or “do you admit migrants are good for economic growth? . . .” becomes “do I like immigrants I see in The Sun? No”. As with framing affect, however, having an equal and logical exchange is hard to to achieve because of our fallible rationality and different, as it were, banks of learning – pictures and words – that limit our ability to communicate to one another with clarity.

As I have said, it is hard to do justice to what is long-form reading matter and to what requires academic rigour; I highly recommend reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. I have added it to my Post-Truth Reading list, of factual, nonsense-cutting, books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.