Your brain is a complex matter yet it’s also quite a simple organ, in that it’s capable of reducing to ‘bare bones’ how we view and interpret events and relationships. This is known as cognitive bias and it’s our brain’s way of making sense of an information-laden world and reaching decisions with rapid speed.
Everyone experiences cognitive bias. Some biases are linked to your memory of past events and relationships, and some are linked to your brain’s “limited” attention capacity. Regardless, we all view the world in different ways and make decisions based on subtle biases which creep in and influence the decisions and judgements we make.
By identifying these biases and how they affect the decisions we make and the way we behave, we can reframe how we process information and respond differently to events and people in our lives. You can do this through a treatment approach like cognitive bias modification therapy (CBMT) which is a form of self-help therapy that’s used successfully to treat anxiety disorders, depression and co-occurring addictions.
What is cognitive bias?
Cognitive biases are faulty, inaccurate or misinformed thinking that occurs when we are processing information or interpreting events; based on how we are influenced by past, current and future events.
Cognitive bias affects the decisions and judgements we make, in what can be both a positive or negative way. Many cognitive biases are reflexive or unconscious and are your brain’s attempt to simplify the task of processing information at speed.
Researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman coined the concept of cognitive bias in 1972. Today, researchers have identified a vast range of biases that affect the decisions we make across a wide scope of areas; ranging from social and personal biases to cognitive, behavioural, management, education, healthcare, finance and business biases.
15 types of cognitive bias
As mentioned, there are many types of cognitive biases that can mislead or alter our thinking, how we view the world, how we behave and the decisions we make. These biases are inherent in the way we think and many of them are unconscious. You’ll recognise some and maybe identify as possessing a few yourself.
By identifying the different types of biases we experience and the impact they may have on our everyday life and interactions helps us to better understand how cognitive processing works. Equipped with this knowledge, we can hopefully make better informed decisions and judgements in the future.
Description – The tendency for people to attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people’s behaviours to internal causes.
Example – You attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.
Description – The tendency for people to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information you learn.
Example – If you learn the average price for a car is a certain value, you will think any car selling for an amount below that is an inferior. This may prevent you from searching for a better deal.
Description – The tendency for people to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others.
Example – When making a decision on which car to buy, you may pay attention to the look and feel of the exterior and interior, but ignore the safety record and gas mileage.
Description – The tendency for people to place greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly. You give greater credence to information you can quickly recall when evaluating a topic or idea, even if this information is not accurate or the best representation of the topic or idea.
Example – After hearing about an airplane disaster, you may believe your chance of dying in an airplane crash is very high.
Description – Favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform. Also known as “myside bias” or “cherry-picking bias”. People will cue into things that matter to them and dismiss the things that don’t, often leading to the “ostrich effect” where a subject buries their head in the sand to avoid information that may disprove their original point.
Example – A person with low self-esteem will interpret someone not immediately replying to their text as “they don’t like me” or “I’ve done something wrong, they don’t want to talk to me”.
False consensus effect
Description – The tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you.
Example – Assuming someone of the same race or gender shares your beliefs and making inappropriate political or social comments.
Description – The tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. It prevents a person from exploring innovative ways of using an item or thinking creatively “outside of the box”.
Example – If you need to tighten a screw and you don’t have a screwdriver, you won’t stop to consider that a knife or a coin can do the job just as well.
Fundamental attribution error
Description – The tendency to attribute someone’s particular behaviors to existing, unfounded stereotypes while attributing our own similar behavior to external factors.
Example – Someone on your team is late to a sport practice, you may assume that they are lazy or lacking motivation without considering they may have got stuck in traffic or stopped to change a flat tyre.
Description – Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about their character. This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate their other qualities.
Example – When you assume that the person wearing a smart suit and tie must be more professional and more competent than the person in the office wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
Description – The tendency to support or believe someone within your own social group rather than an outsider. This bias tends to remove objectivity from any sort of selection or hiring process, as we tend to favor those we personally know and want to help.
Example – Choosing a car based on what a friend in your social group recommends rather than listening to the advise of a professional who reviews cars for a living.
Description – The tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event.
Example – You went to a concert and had a good time but then you hear from others that the sound quality was poor and the lead singer was off tune, and it changes your memory of the fun evening you had.
Description – This bias refers to how we as humans are more likely to estimate a positive outcome if we are in a good mood. It may lead you to believe you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.
Example – Someone who keeps fit and eats well believes there is a low risk of them suffering a heart attack or developing diabetes.
Description – The tendency to view the world as “the glass half empty”. This bias refers to how we as humans are more likely to estimate a negative outcome if we are in a bad mood or in a bad head space.
Example – A person hears the phone ring and assumes the caller will be a bill collector or telemarketer.A person going to a party assumes the event will be boring or otherwise unpleasant.
Description – The tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. This bias results in a tendency to blame outside circumstances for bad situations rather than taking personal responsibility.
Example – When a student gets a good grade for an exam, they believe it is due to how hard they studied. When they get a bad grade, they believe they were taught poorly by their teacher.
The Dunning-Kruger effect
Description – This is when people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. This bias can also lead people to think they are smarter than they actually are because they have reduced a complex idea to a simplistic understanding.
Example – An obvious example is President Donald Trump, whose confidence never falters, despite all the criticism he gets from the opposition party and mainstream media.
What causes cognitive biases?
There are a bounty of reasons we go through life with cognitive biases. One theory is our brain’s desire to take “mental shortcuts” or use the “rule of thumb” when making decisions or judgements.
These brain shortcuts are known as heuristics and they allow us to solve problems and make decisions quickly and efficiently. Heuristics basically prevent ‘brain overload’ and allow us to function without constantly stopping to think about the next course of action.
Sometimes these mental shortcuts can be helpful but at other times, they can lead to faulty thinking or cognitive biases. Heuristics may cause us to make poor decisions or judgements of people and events or to behave in way that fuels anxiety, depression and addictions.
How can CBMT help treat addictions, depression and anxiety?
Cognitive bias modification therapy (CBMT) is a relatively new treatment method that is used to reframe cognitive biases. It’s a simple yet effective computer-based tool that helps you interpret your environment and how you respond to it.
Basically, CBMT is a way of retraining your brain so that cognitive biases that cause negative thoughts and behaviour are replaced with more positive, affirming responses. CBMT is now being used extensively to treat addictions, anxiety and depression.
Addiction, anxiety and depression are often underpinned by cognitive biases; either stemming from relationships or events in your past, or the negative information and stress you absorb on a daily basis. You can think of CBMT as the “cognitive vaccine” that protects you from harmful or destructive thinking.
How does CBMT work?
Cognitive bias modification therapy (CBMT) involves completing simple computer-based tasks that are designed to re-programme harmful thought patterns. A person is repeatedly exposed to stimuli and different possibilities in these tasks and in the process, he or she learns to change their thinking, emotions and behaviour.
Psychologist Dr Donald Meichenbaum developed the cognitive behaviour modification technique with the aim being to help patients identify dysfunctional self-talk that makes them sad, anxious or make poor decisions. Dr Meichenbaum held the view that much of our behaviour is underpinned by “how we talk to ourselves”.
Basically, CBMT helps individuals learn to be their own therapists and develop coping skills for anxiety and depression. A therapist is not usually required to be present. Instead, CBMT is “homework” you can do outside of individual and group therapy sessions. As a result, CBMT is viewed as one of the most cost-effective and simple methods that can be used as part of a treatment plan for addiction, depression and anxiety.
Read more about Cognitive Bias Modification
How cognitive biases hinder your recovery
Cognitive biases often result in depression, anxiety and panic orders. A classic example is having to attend a social function that makes you feel anxious and fearful. You may even have a panic response because you fear having a panic attack at the function. It could be so bad that you fake an illness to avoid attending the function.
Life would be so much easier and less painful if you could reframe your cognitive biases and change your thinking and behavior. You can do this using cognitive behaviour modification and it’s something that you can do on your own if you understand the process.
How you can fix cognitive biases
Negative self-talk lowers your ability to see and take advantage of opportunities and achieve the goals you set for yourself. It’s a destructive pattern that may have been passed down to you from childhood or it’s a new state of mind that’s influenced by negative messages spread through social media, toxic people in your life or having low self-esteem.
If you find yourself frequently talking to yourself in a toxic, negative way, you’ll likely be more stressed. Negative self-talk can lead to or exacerbate depression and anxiety and fuel your addiction to alcohol or drugs. It limits your thinking, affects your relationships and leaves you feeling anxious or depressed.
You’ve heard the saying, “Fake it until you make it”. That’s pretty much what cognitive bias modification is but you can think of “faking it” as simply practicing a new way of thinking. This recovery technique takes time and practice but it is possible to turn negative self-talk into positive affirmations and lead a happier, more fulfilled life.
2 steps to changing negative self-talk into positive affirmations
Cognitive behaviour modification can help you regain control of negative automatic thoughts (NATs) that control you. Once you acquire the skill of changing negative self-talk into positive affirmations, you can take control of thoughts and behaviour that hinder your recovery from addictions, depression or anxiety.
Step 1: Observe how your mind works
Listen closely to how you talk to yourself and observe how you behave as a result of these toxic thoughts. Focus on negative talk that makes you feel depressed, anxious or panicky. Negative talk is the niggly inner voice that can be critical, demeaning and sometimes quite cruel.
A good idea is to write down negative automatic thoughts that pop into your mind in different situations, whether at work, home or out in a social environment. Journaling is a very useful tool for this step because you can read over what you’ve jotted down and tie it up with how these NATs make you behave.
Step 2: Change how your talk to yourself
Once you identify a pattern of negative self-talk, work on changing it. Using the example of attending a social function that makes you feel anxious; instead of saying to yourself, “I’m too nervous to go, I can’t go”, change it to “I might not feel comfortable at the function but I can go for a while and I might enjoy myself”.
Once again, write down in your journal what negative conversations you have with yourself; then scratch them out and practice putting a positive spin on them. Over time, switching from negative self-talk to positive affirmations will become second nature and you’ll find the anxiety and panic you once experienced falling away.
How can White River Manor help you?
White River Manor is a leading centre in South Africa, specialising in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction. Our multi-disciplinary team will create an individualised plan to deal with your addiction and any co-occurring mental disorders. This involves learning new skills to modify cognitive processing that will help you see the world in a brighter, happier light.