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What is cognitive bias?

Last updated

5 September 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced the concept of cognitive bias in 1972. It’s when your brain takes a shortcut while processing new information, moving data through a filter of preferences and personal experiences. 

Psychologists see cognitive bias as a coping mechanism. Simplifying new data allows your brain to process it faster.

On the surface, it works well, but this subconscious act may cause incorrect judgments and interpretations - particularly as part of the research process. 

Let’s learn more about cognitive biases, signs to watch for, and some cognitive bias examples.  

Cognitive biases simplified

When your brain discovers new information, it can be hard to process it along with everything else it has to do. Attention and brainpower are finite resources. That’s why our brains look for easy shortcuts, which is when cognitive biases slip in.

Your brain does some guesswork to make new things easier to process. It relies on your opinions, past experiences, and your general view of the world. It’s easy to see why processing information through these lenses could lead to falsely interpreting new data. 

For example, if you’ve had a bad experience with a dog, your brain may jump to all dogs being scary and dangerous. Another one we hear a lot of is “all politicians are the same,” as plenty of people don’t have the mental bandwidth to learn about the good side of politics. 

These two are examples of a cognitive bias called stereotyping. These generalizations may make the world easier to process, but they cause us to miss the nuance. 

Types of cognitive bias with examples

While there are many types of cognitive bias, here are a few common examples:

Actor-observer bias

The actor-observer bias is when you blame outside forces for your actions while holding other people responsible for their actions. It’s a difference in how we see ourselves and others. 

Some examples of the actor-observer bias include saying you failed a test because there were trick questions, but others failed because they’re incompetent.

Anchoring bias

Ever felt too attached to the first piece of information you read on a topic? If you’re unwavering in your views even in the face of fresh data, that’s anchoring bias. It gets in the way of decisions, and even your mood can influence it.

Examples of anchoring bias can be found everywhere, from families to medicine. 

Have you argued with older generations about the housing market and the impossibility of buying a home nowadays, but they’re adamant it’s a piece of cake? They may be dealing with anchoring bias, believing their experience is the same as yours. Unfortunately for you, it’s not.

Another example is a doctor’s first impression of a new patient. If the patient is overweight, the doctor may immediately judge them based on this and blame their symptoms on needing to lose weight. This bias could cause them to overlook the real issue, which can also be dangerous. It may also discourage the patient from seeking medical help in the future. 

Confirmation bias

If you mostly listen to information that confirms your beliefs, that’s confirmation bias. This is where the echo chamber reinforces your views and closes your mind to other perspectives. 

Confirmation bias examples include: 

  • Refusing to hear the opposing side

  • Only 'liking' or 'following' those with the same views on social media

  • Choosing news outlets that support your mindset

  • Ignoring facts that don’t align with your views—”fake news” may ring a bell

Availability heuristic

The availability heuristic means you tend to estimate probability by how many examples you can think of. It’s a bias toward what’s most readily available in your mind.

An example is thinking that plane crashes are common, leading many people to fear flying. While we see plenty of crashes in the news, we don’t hear about the 100,000 successful flights every day. One source puts the risk of an accident at 0.000414% per departure.

Self-serving bias

You fall into the self-serving bias trap when you blame outside influences for problems but take credit for your successes. 

Let’s imagine you’re taking your driving test. You pass the second time, thanks to your fantastic driving. But the first fail was totally the examiner’s fault—they tripped you up! It definitely wasn’t because you ran a red light. Definitely not. 

Halo effect

First impressions matter, and the halo effect confirms that. When we meet a physically attractive or charming person, we’re more likely to think they’re a good person with other positive traits. This initial positive first impression can make it tricky to accept opposing information.

For example, a charismatic politician appears on TV, and you think they’re an excellent candidate because of your positive first impression. If the politician gets caught up in an awful scandal, you may say they’re a good person solely based on their charisma. 

Optimism bias

Optimism bias is when you overestimate the chances of something good happening. It’s also very common to underestimate the chances that something bad will happen. 

Two everyday examples of this bias are smoking and divorce. Yes, other people are developing cancer from smoking, but that won’t happen to you! And divorce? Not a chance. 

False consensus effect

Do you believe everyone shares your mindset, beliefs, attitude, and values? That’s the false consensus effect. This bias happens for many reasons, including growing up around similar views and surrounding yourself with people of the same mindset.

An example of this is someone who believes in Bigfoot. They may think they’re in the majority, and only a few don't believe.

Signs of cognitive bias

Look out for these signs of cognitive bias:

  • Only listening to information agreeing with your opinion, creating an echo chamber

  • Blaming others for your bad luck

  • Taking credit for your achievements while believing others rely on luck

  • Believing you are always correct

  • Believing everyone shares your opinion or belief

  • Thinking you’re an expert in a topic you know little about

Causes of cognitive bias

Several things can cause cognitive bias, like:

  • Having limited resources and not being able to access different viewpoints

  • Only hearing one viewpoint most of your life

  • Personal motivations: Sometimes it’s beneficial to think in a certain way

  • Having a short attention span where you can’t evaluate details as thoroughly

  • Living in a community with a majority view where opposing opinions are considered dangerous, offensive, or disrespectful

Ways to overcome cognitive bias

While cognitive bias affects most of us, we can start defeating it in a few steps: 

Consider the current landscape

Are current situations influencing your thoughts and feelings? Are you experiencing the bandwagon effect and agreeing because everyone else is? 

Consider the forces surrounding you and take a step back. What do you think and believe outside this bubble?

Acknowledge your bias

The best way to overcome bias is to recognize it exists. Once you know where the bias is, you can be more careful in your decisions and judgments.

Stay curious

Curiosity means asking questions and exploring information instead of taking things at face value. That’ll widen your worldview and help you beat the bias. 

Think about the past

Another great way to overcome cognitive bias is to reflect on past mistakes and bad situations and find any patterns. Do you ignore red flags until they become problems?

And then there’s how we form biases. If you grew up in a household with strong opinions, are you still carrying those with you, even with opposing evidence?

See it from all sides

No matter how sure you are of your viewpoint, debate it from the opposite side. Pushing yourself to see all angles of the issue can boost your empathy and remove cognitive bias.

Find refuting evidence

Actively looking for hard evidence that goes against your views can help you find the truth, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Opening up this line of thinking enables you to be much more open-minded, lowering your cognitive bias.


Cognitive bias vs. logical fallacy

Logical fallacy involves spur-of-the-moment failures in reasoning. Cognitive bias is where our predispositions cause reasoning errors. 

Essentially, cognitive bias is a product of personal bias, whereas logical fallacy is more a mishap in logical interpretations. 

How many types of cognitive biases are there?

Scientists have identified over 180 varying types of cognitive biases. Visual Capitalist created a detailed infographic showing 188 bias types.

What is the difference between emotional bias and cognitive bias?

Cognitive bias is making a judgment based on long-held beliefs and preconceptions. Emotional bias relies on spontaneous feelings.

How do you identify cognitive bias?

Look out for these issues: 

  • Only watching specific TV channels that are on your side of an issue

  • Buying products from companies that align with your views

  • Blaming others when you do not get what you want

  • Believing that you earn things while others get by on luck and privilege

What is the most powerful cognitive bias?

One of the most widespread bias types is confirmation bias. In today's polarizing world, it’s easy to surround ourselves with news and information that feeds into our beliefs. If we don’t experience opposing thoughts, it’s very easy to think our view is the only view.

Are we born with cognitive bias?

According to Frontiers in Psychology, some biases gradually appear while others are innate.

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