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Theory of relativity : Daily life cognitive bias

Are we humans really rational thinkers? Don’t you think our cognitive minds harbor biases based on the first piece of information we encounter and make relations to further arguments and discussions?

With corona virus around, to compare the count of affected countries, we blindly look at the active cases. For example, India having 276,685 active Covid-19 cases is compared to be worst hit than Russia which has 215,152 active viral cases. Now let’s dig a little deeper, Russia’s population reaches up to 14.45 crore (2018), While India’s population according to the 2018 census is 135.26 crore. …Now what do you think?

When we actually look at it, India, has lesser active corona virus cases with only 0.020% of the population when compared to Russia with 0.149% of the country’s population. Unfortunately, our minds fail to make such analysis, but take heuristics to decide with only the figures available on face.

Such behavior is observed in our decision making process – from financial planning to buying groceries. No wonder they say, Human beings are easily influenced.

Cognitive heuristic

Our 5 senses supply us with incredible amounts of data constantly. It’s impossible for the human brain to process all this information – there’s simply too much of it. Thus to make our lives easier, our brains take short cuts (heuristic) when interpreting data and making decisions.

Although these heuristics are sometimes effective, they often lead to serious errors of judgment.

Doesn’t it seem like we use anchors (initial information), to make subsequent judgement? Once an anchor is set, other judgement are made by adjusting away from that anchor. There is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor. Future negotiations also depend upon the anchors we set. This tendency is called Anchoring Bias.

We manifest positive attitude towards our decisions we make based on biased information and judgments, while we believe that we are less likely to experience a negative event. And this phenomena is “the illusion of invulnerability“. For instance, it makes us believe that, it’s ok not to wear seat-belts while driving. Since the last time when we were driving we made it safe even without fastening the seat-belt. Previous experiences anchor our opinions. Hence our brains tune into optimism and ignores the probability of negatives. This is called Optimism Bias.

Modus vivendi: Manner of living

Another similar scenario that all of us would have experienced is to choose between:
Original price vs. Discount price.
Let’s pay attention to how retailers present their savings.

 In many cases, they simply put the new discounted price and make people believe they’re getting a bargain. Consumers are positive that they are saving by choosing on the discounted rates – but this doesn’t really illustrate the saving.
If put the original price first, though, this acts as an anchor representing the true value of the item. Any discount price that follows instantly gains weighing because you’ve already anchored that initial price into people’s minds.

Such errors in thinking that occurs when we process and interpret information, affecting our judgments and decisions we make, is Cognitive bias.

Cognitive heuristics

Amongst many other types of Cognitive bias, Anchoring bias is most commonly observed in the human decision making process. Beyond purchasing and financial decisions, ‘anchoring effect’ has an impact on many areas:

How long do we expect to live? 
If both our parents live a long life, we assume we too will. Even though we eat poorly and are mainly sedentary. Conveniently, we ignore the active and healthier life they had.

How old should kids be, to give them their own mobile device? 
Kids argue that his or her peers own a phone at 14. But we grew up to believe that 18-19 is the minimum age to have phones. The anchoring effect leads us to believe that around 18 is the earliest age a kid should be allowed have his/her phone.

How much is so much work?
If  the husband is doing ten times more housework than his dad ever did, he may feel entitled to a “best husband of the year” award from the wife. Apparently the wife berates him for not doing enough. What’s going on here?
Blame it on the anchoring effect. His anchor is what his dad used to do. The wife’s anchor is the amount of housework she does – full time.

Similarly, many of our everyday decisions such as – working on a project, getting a flu, choosing an insurance plan, require an estimate of probabilities of future events: the probability of a project’s success, of falling sick or of being involved in accident. In accessing these probabilities, we tend to be ‘optimistically biased’ which hinder our logical thinking.

Human rationality

The cognitive biases we hold reflect the fact that we only have a partial perspective on the world around us. While on the other hand, with such deviations from logical thinking and sound judgement, it brings human rationality into question. This doubt is shaking the foundations of economics, the social sciences, and rational models of cognition.
Despite the cognitive biases, humans still outperform intelligent systems built on the laws of logic and probability on many real-world problems. This poses a paradox: how can we be so smart, if we appear so irrational? (Maybe, that’s a topic for another day).

Meanwhile understanding our own biases can help us overcome them. While understanding the biases of others can help us improve the user experience and also help develop the people around us.

So the next time we are trying to make an important decision, let’s learn to give a little thought to the possible impact of the anchoring bias and optimistic bias on our choices.

Are you giving enough consideration to all the available information and all the possible options, or are you basing your selection on an existing anchor point and choosing to ignore the probable negative outcomes? Give it a thought…


  1. Very much Logical. Keep up your work.

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