Cognitive bias in futures thinking
How hard can it be to think about the future? After all we have loads of experience of what’s happened in the past, both to us and to other people, so surely with just a little thought we can project that forward and we’re done? We can read about new things happening (early warning signals) and overlay some obvious potential risks or shocks to the system (wild cards) if we want to be more sophisticated.
It turns out that thinking about risks rationally is not that easy however. Our view of the world is more than likely to be skewed by a series of cognitive biases which distort and restrict our thinking. An interesting article recently identified 12 different types of cognitive bias we should try to recognise and avoid:
- Confirmation bias: We tend to agree with people who agree with us and reject sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure. So no matter how valid we ignore opinions that threaten our world-view. Instead we should seek out challenging perceptions and test them rigorously.
- In-group bias: Similarly we have an almost tribal tendency to forge tighter bonds with an in-group and are suspicious or fearful of outsiders, failing to take account of what they may usefully tell us. Seek out the stranger and see what they think.
- Gambler’s fallacy: If a coin has landed on heads five times, we tend to think it more likely that it will be a tails next, but in fact it is still 50-50 (actually it may be more likely to be heads again if the coin is biased).
- Post-purchase rationalization: We tend to feel good about what we bought, even when the evidence points the other way, especially if it was expensive. We don’t like to think we were wrong.
- Misjudging probability: The chances of being killed in a car accident or falling downstairs are much higher than those of flying or being caught up in a terrorist bombing. But we are much more likely to fear the latter. Partly this may be because we are not in control – yet clearly control doesn’t eradicate risk.
- Observational selection bias: When we buy a new car, we suddenly notice lots more like it than before, so may assume that the frequency has increased – when of course we are just noticing them more. Similarly we may under-estimate the chances of two things simply being a coincidence
- Status quo bias: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a very conservative approach – it almost certainly will break one day.
- Negativity effect: People tend to pay more attention to bad news —we perceive negative news as being more important or profound. Maybe heeding bad news may be safer than ignoring good news. But remember good things happen too.
- Bandwagon effect: We go with the flow of the crowd and buy into “groupthink”. Much of this bias has to do with our built-in desire to fit in and conform.
- Projection bias: We tend to assume that most people think just like us, and that they also agree with us. We overestimate how typical and normal we are, and assume that a consensus exists.
- The current moment bias: We would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later. The diet can always start tomorrow. Put the things you don’t like doing at the top of your “to-do” list.
- Anchoring effect: Also known as the relativity trap, this is the tendency we have to compare and contrast only a limited set of items. We tend to view things in relation to others, rather than as absolutes, generally preferring the middle option.
So what cognitive bias affected you while reading this?
Written by Huw Williams.