Leadership, Personal Development, Perspective, Strategic planning

Cognitive biases revisited: Why do we fall prey to them?

Yesterday I wrote a post about cognitive biases. This prompted a response from one reader asking if these biases are caused by pride or ego. Rather than answering the question directly I thought it warranted a post of its own. So here goes :-).


What is behind our predisposition to fall prey to cognitive biases?

The simple answer is because we are hardwired to be predisposed to them. It’s in our biology. More precisely it is in our neurobiology. We have two brains. Or to be more correct, social scientists have identified two dissimilar systems in our brains that process information differently. The two systems can be described as follows:

System 1 or the Automatic system – This is the fast system, often acting below the level of consciousness. It takes familiar tasks and responds to them in an autopilot fashion. It is able to handle multiple tasks at the same time. The automatic system bases its responses on rule of thumb or heuristics; shortcuts for how to deal with common or very familiar tasks; tasks you have repeated many times – think about how you navigate your route to work without having to really concentrate .

System 2 or the Deliberate system – This system is associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This system is slow and deliberate and is responsible for self-control, rational thought and planning and prediction (forward thinking). It is able to handle only one task at a time. Responsible for:

  • Self-control –
    • Emotional regulation
    • Resisting temptation
    • Ability to concentrate in the face of distractions
  • Rational thought –
    • Logical thinking
    • Finding solutions to problems that aren’t routine
    • Reviewing information
    • Connecting info to past experiences
    • Making sense of it all
    • Generating options
    • Evaluating those options
  • Planning –
    • Setting goals
    • Prediction of future events

The Automatic system is tireless, constantly on guard for dangers or opportunities. In contrast, the Deliberate system uses a lot of energy which in turn requires rest. Overexerting your deliberate system has consequences. Trying to do several tasks at once or not allowing adequate time for your brain to rest and recuperate after difficult cognitive tasks can lead to a decline in the quality of self-control, rational thought and planning.

And herein lies the problem of why we can easily fall into cognitive biases. Much of the time our interpretations of and reactions to the world around us are a combination of both systems; sometimes working independently and sometimes working in tandem. At times, though, we respond to complex situations more from the Automatic system than the Deliberate system. Had we been more aware we would have engaged the Deliberate system and come up with a more rational response. At other times our Deliberate system may simply be overworked or tired causing us to react to a situation less rationally than we would have liked to. One of the keys to not falling for cognitive biases is to become more aware of the two systems and learning to engage the Deliberate (rational) system when faced with complex challenges; like negotiating a good price on a used car :-). A second key is to be aware of your own fatigue level. Avoid engaging in challenging tasks when you’re Deliberate system has already been taxed.

So, you see, it is not necessarily hubris (pride or ego) that leads us to fall into cognitive bias traps, rather it is more a function of the Automatic system engaging when the Deliberate system should have been engaged.

The first step in learning to respond more appropriately to complex situations is to be aware of your own particular weaknesses to various cognitive biases. Yesterday’s post was an attempt at making myself more aware. I hope that it served the same function for you as well :-).


Today’s post has drawn on the work of Psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and Economist Caroline Webb in her book, How to Have a Good Day: Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life.



2 thoughts on “Cognitive biases revisited: Why do we fall prey to them?

  1. Now it makes sense. Looking back at my experiences with cognitive biases, you’re right, mine was due to fatigue because I usually fall prey to these biases at the end of a long day.

    I’m definitely more aware of this now. I’ll try out this out for sure Ed! Thank you for your time to write out this great post and I look forward to more of your quality content!


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