Cognitive Biases: Why Do We Take Wrong Decisions?


    Have you ever heard the “secrets of success” from a famous person? Did you follow everything they had said? Yet you did not succeed. Were they lying or is it a cognitive bias? Ever wondered why IITians are so successful? Does IIT make you smarter? Why does fairness cream only work on the model in the ad? If these questions ever troubled you – read on.

    1. What is Cognitive Bias?
    2. Survivorship Bias
    3. Swimmer’s Body Illusion

    What is Cognitive Bias?

    A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking. It is a deviation from logic. It leads to irrationality and a wrong world view. As Rolf Dobelli puts it, “These are not just occasional errors in thinking judgment, but rather routine mistakes, barriers to logic we stumble over time and again, repeating patterns through generations and through the centuries.”

    We will see further into the article, how cognitive biases are deeply embedded in us. We can never get rid of them completely. But not all of them are bad. Some are even necessary for living. Here, we list a few of them. The goal is to recognize bias and make better decisions.

    cognitive bias

    Survivorship Bias

    It is a common error in thinking. People systematically overestimate their chances of success. Stories of failure get overlooked. All we see in the media are success stories. We rarely get to know the tales of failure and trial. For every successful startup, there are hundreds which failed. For every published author, there are a thousand rejects.

    A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight. — Daniel Kahneman

    We head to successful people who made it, for advice. They proceed to explain their formula as if they knew what they were doing all along. Confusing cause with correlation, we follow them and rarely get the same results.

    How can we deal with it?

    Don’t look just at what you can see. Consider all the things that started on the same path but didn’t make it. — Farnam Street

    Next time you read about a success story, try to dig for similar failure stories. You will find many similarities implying the immense role of luck. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should lose hope. The point is to consider the issues that come with a perfect story. This will ensure one stays prepared for any hurdle along the way.

    Swimmer’s Body Illusion

    This bias occurs when we confuse selection factors with results.

    Rolf Dobelli in his book, “The Art Of Thinking Clearly”, explains how people think they can get a swimmer’s body just by working hard. Michael Phelps doesn’t have his body because he trained hard; rather, he is the most successful swimmer of all time because he has that kind of body.

    Think of the IITs or any renowned institutions that are challenging to get into. Are they actually the best colleges or do they choose the best students who can do well regardless of the IIT stamp? Many of its alumni are successful. Does this make IIT a good college? We don’t know. Perhaps their curriculum is great or maybe it is the big campus. But most likely, it is the rigorous selection process.

    Advertisement is another great example where we are tricked into buying products. A model who is already attractive and fair is chosen. Then, she is made unattractive with makeup. However, when she “applies the product”, she becomes fair and lovely again!

    How can we counter this?

    Be careful to not confuse selection factors with result. Be critical of anyone trying to make you strive for certain stuff – success, fairness, body.

    These are only two of the many biases which make us take the wrong decisions. Knowledge of cognitive bias is the first step to clear thinking. We will cover more in subsequent articles. Stay tuned.

    Further Reading:


    1. When someone describes their success it is their perspective, what’s worked for them.. if I try to apply their same formula to me that’s simply my problem. We all come from a unique set of circumstances, our own strengths, weaknesses and resources. We just can’t apply another person’s path to our own without acknowledging that and customizing our own ventures.

    2. Rightly said. The trouble is most of the success stories are followed with “how you can achieve the same” narrative – duping millions of people. For example, see self-help books industry. There should be more caveats and humility.

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