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The cognitive bias underlying all others (and how to avoid it)

The cognitive bias underlying all others (and how to avoid it)

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Sometimes, we don’t behave as rationally as we think we do. One of the culprits: cognitive biases. They can lead to faulty judgement and flawed decision-making. So, having an awareness of how they influence your thought processes can help you minimise their negative impact on Teaching & Learning.

Surprisingly, psychologists have pinned down almost 200 of these biases to date. But researchers suggest that a specific one, the Confirmation Bias, is what underlies them all. So, let’s take a deeper look at what it is and how it explains other biases…

What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation Bias is when we favour information that supports pre-existing beliefs and has been demonstrated in research.

In one study, half a class of students was told that a new supply teacher would be “rather cold, industrious, critical, practical and determined”, whereas the other half were told that the same teacher would be “very warm”. The results found that those in the latter group rated their teacher to be more sociable, funnier and more popular than those in the former group. So, we can see that they focused on the qualities that backed up their previous views.

5 core beliefs at the heart of Cognitive Bias

But the Confirmation Bias alone does not influence all other biases. Researchers suggest that it is its coupling with a few fundamental beliefs that can result in students and teachers harbouring biased opinions. These core beliefs are as follows…

1. “My personal experiences are a good reference point”

    This describes how we form belief systems and judgements based on our own lived experiences.

    One example of this is the Curse of Expertise, which is the assumption that everyone knows as much as you do. This makes it difficult to remember what life was like before you knew something and harder to relate to novice learners. It also may explain why teachers may unintentionally rush wait times.

    Another example is the Spotlight Effect, which is when we overestimate how much other people notice our behaviours or our feelings. As a result, students may opt out of asking for help if they think that others are judging them for it.

    2. “Context does not shape outcomes”

      Sometimes, we ignore the role that external factors can play in situations.

      For example, when thinking about others, you may attribute their situation to their character traits rather than external circumstances. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error (or Correspondence Bias). This is why, for example, a student who gets to school late might be labelled as disorganised even though they had to deal with unforeseen travel delays.

      In addition, the Outcome Bias is judging the success of a decision based on its outcome alone. Imagine for example that a student chooses to cram for an exam instead of having a good night’s sleep, and then flukes a good result. They may think that skipping studying and cramming is a good thing to do for their next exam, even though it is one of the worst things to do.

      3. “I am good”

        From this belief comes the Better-Than-Average Effect. This is when we perceive that our abilities and attributes are superior to others, even though the majority of us fit in the average range. As a result, students may not try as hard at school if they feel that they are above average.

        The Self-Serving Bias also derives from this view and describes the tendency to attribute successes to our own character or behaviours but blame failures on external factors. This makes it easy to ignore constructive feedback if we think that anything that goes wrong isn’t our fault.

        4. “My group is good”

          This perspective can lead to an In-Group Bias, which is when we view the knowledge and suggestions from the group we’re in as more important than the contributions of a different group. For example, in group work, students may be less willing to take on board the answers given by members of other groups, which means that they can lose out on important information.

          Another bias that can stem from this view is the Intergroup Sensitivity Effect, which is when criticisms are evaluated as more negative when people outside the group give it. The result? Students may feel more offended by feedback that comes from those who they see as external to their group, such as peers from a different class or a new teacher.

          5. “I make correct assumptions”

            This viewpoint is the backbone of why biases have such a large effect on our judgement, as it may explain our bias blind spot. This is when we think others are experiencing biases more than we are and is fundamental to why we choose not to question and re-think our own judgements.

            Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

            How to avoid the Confirmation Bias

            So, how does the Confirmation Bias come into this? Overall, the Confirmation Bias means that we look for evidence to support these beliefs even when they are flawed. So, it makes it harder to both recognise and improve faulty decision-making.

            It’s not all bad news, as there are strategies that you can use to shield yourself from Confirmation Bias, such as:

            • Using a range of sources to make your judgements rather than relying on just one
            • Looking for diverse perspectives
            • Questioning your assumptions and where they may have come from
            • Considering alternative outlooks
            • Being willing to both challenge and change your assumptions
            • Collaborating with others who have different experiences and expertise

            Final thoughts

            Confirmation Bias is a powerful cognitive bias. It can stop us from interpreting and processing information in a rational way, as it reinforces unreasonable beliefs that we have about ourselves and others.

            The good thing is that by using the strategies from this blog, you will be well-equipped for reducing the negative influences that Confirmation Bias has on your decision-making skills. Furthermore, sharing these strategies with your students can protect them from cognitive biases that might be holding them back.

            About the editor

            Bradley Busch

            Bradley Busch

            Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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