Psychologists have argued that many cognitive biases are rooted in mental shortcuts. They are heuristics—rules of thumb, stereotypes, instincts—that help you make sense of the world. They aren’t intrinsically flawed, but, they’re often quirky and error-prone. Your mental models can affect you in ways that you don’t suspect.
David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart (2011) suggests a brief—if hurried—tour of 48 cognitive biases that can deceive you. Based on the author’s popular blog, the book is a satisfying assessment of understanding people’s—and your own—behavior a little bit better.
There is a growing body of work coming out of psychology and cognitive science that says you have no clue why you act the way you do, choose the things you choose, or think the thoughts you think. … From the greatest scientist to the most humble artisan, every brain within every body is infested with preconceived notions and patterns of thought that lead it astray without the brain knowing it. So you are in good company.
Each chapter starts with a brief statement of a misconception followed by the fact. Then a synopsis of a related behavioral study shows how our brains produce the counterpart deception and the truth. Some of the less-known preconceptions discussed are,
- Confabulation. You tend to create unreliable narratives to explain away your choices post hoc. These reassuring perceptions can make you think you’re more rational than you actually are.
- Groupthink. People tend to fall in with the rest of the group to minimize conflict and foster group cohesiveness and social acceptance. No one wants to be the one person with a dissenting opinion.
- Social Loafing. That others in a team will pick up your slack may induce you to put in less effort if you think you’ll get away with it. This can curb your own performance, even if you’re a conscientious, hardworking type. If you don’t feel your participation will be noticed, why bother putting in the effort?
- Availability Heuristic. You’re likely to estimate the likelihood of an event based on your ability to recall immediate and easily accessed examples.
- Fundamental Attribution Error. You tend to assign external reasons for your own behavior but internal motives to other people. For instance, if you’re late for a meeting, you’ll blame it on public transport. If someone else is running late for a meeting with you, you’ll blame it on her poor time-keeping.
Recommendation: Read David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart. It’s an engaging, easy-to-read primer to how the mind works. Read it as a lead up to Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling dissertation Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011; summary forthcoming.)
Idea for Impact: Once you learn to spot the cognitive biases we all grapple with, they’re easier to overcome.