Feb 13

Cognitive bias, or why you’re no good at being rational

Hindsight - 2883We’d all like to believe that we think  in an objective, rational manner. Unfortunately, our minds are hardwired to see the world in an egocentric frame of reference, and thus information tends to get distorted, lost, or invented. Over the course of evolution, the human brain has evolved many mechanisms for extracting the most relevant information out of the surrounding environment without having to overload its senses.

One broad category of such mechanisms is the cognitive bias. Cognitive biases have evolved to speed up judgment times and make decisions easier to come by. However, by decreasing judgment time, your brain often sacrifices objectivity and precision. Decision-making mechanisms that speed up reaction time (while sacrificing accuracy) are referred to as heuristics, and there have been many identified in cognitive psychology. Cognition can also be persuaded by goals or motivational states (we often perceive things as we’d like to see them).

Cognitive biases not only interfere with your day-to-day perception of the world, but can also affect the way you see your illness and when you choose to seek treatment. In today’s post, I want to go over four basic cognitive biases that could be hindering your anxiety treatment plan.

Confirmation Bias. 

What is it? Humans have an overwhelming tendency to confirm their own beliefs. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re hardwired to do just that. The confirmation bias is the tendency to collect information from our surroundings that supports ideas or beliefs that we have already formulated.  It’s hard to think objectively when your brain is constantly searching for information that validates your beliefs.

How can it disrupt treatment? If you think that your biggest anxiety trigger is the smell of perfume, then you’ll notice every time you feel anxious around someone wearing a heavy scent. Unfortunately, the confirmation bias may lead you to miss other obvious triggers. The confirmation bias will make it difficult for you to pinpoint your anxiety triggers because you will likely already have an idea of what’s causing your anxiety. Overcoming the confirmation bias is an essential part of cognitive therapy.

Hindsight Bias

What is it? The hindsight bias is closely related to the confirmation bias; both are examples of how overconfident we can be in our own thoughts and beliefs. The hindsight bias is the tendency to overestimate how predictable something was after it has occurred (“I knew it all along!”). For example, when you get an A on a midterm, you “knew” it would happen because you studied so hard.   Cognitive biases like the hindsight bias probably derive from cognitive dissonance: the discomfort we feel when we hold two or more conflicting ideas. “I thought I was going to get an A on that midterm, but I got a B.” These two conflicting thoughts make you feel quite uncomfortable; so you rectify them. “Well, it wasn’t a fair exam. I have an unfair professor.” Hindsight bias is one of the many ways we can reduce the amount of cognitive dissonance we feel. Obviously, when I’m right I knew it all along. When I’m wrong, something happened that was completely out of my control.

How can it disrupt treatment? You may find yourself overly confident in your ability to predict panic attacks or sudden onset of anxiety. Over time, you may become so confident in your ability to predict your panic attacks that you stop following your treatment plan. The ability to predict when we’ll feel anxious is falsely comforting, sometimes encouraging us to think we’ve “conquered” our illness. From time to time, I’ve found that I become so confident in my ability to deal with and predict my anxiety that I stop doing the things that keep me calm. Eventually, falling off my treatment plan comes back to bite me, and the anxiety gets worse again.

Availability Heuristic

What is it? The availability heuristic occurs when we make decisions or judgments based on how easily information comes to mind. For example, if you’re out buying a new car, and you remember your uncle telling you about how much he loves his new Honda, you may be persuaded to buy a Honda. When memories are available to us, they can be quite persuasive. Many students unknowingly use this tactic to answer multiple choice questions; read the question, and whatever comes to mind is probably the right answer. Professors can take advantage of this mental short-cut to trip up their students and make misleading questions. This heuristic can be used to make a lot of false assumptions, and can enhance the effects of an illusory correlation (a situation where two things seem related, but are not). For example, say you have two friends from Belgium. Both of them happen to be fans of the show Friends. If asked whether most Belgian people like the show Friends, you’ll probably say yes. Hopefully you can see how irrational that is; two individuals are hardly a representative sample of a population of 11 million. We use the availability heuristic in many different areas of our lives to make decisions, both trivial and important.

How can it disrupt treatment? Like the confirmation bias, the availability heuristic can distort the way you see your anxiety triggers. If the last time you felt anxious happened to be while giving a presentation in class, you may become convinced that presentations are your biggest problem, while this may not be the case. This can lead you to start solving problems that aren’t really problematic – while ignoring problems that are severely impacting your life.

Anchoring Effect. 

What is it? Anchoring occurs when we base decisions on deviations from a set piece of information we’re given. For example, if you’re told a watch normally costs $100, but you can get the watch for $80, it will sound like you’re getting a deal – even if the watch is only worth $50. The first piece of information we receive surrounding a decision will anchor how we approach that decision.

How can it disrupt treatment? Labels can act as anchors to disrupt your perception of your illness. If you’re initially told you may be suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, that label will act as an anchor to guide the way you see your illness, and can influence the treatment you decide to undergo. The anchor may dissuade you from exploring alternative diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

The human brain is an incredible organ, capable of astounding feats that (as of yet) are not reproducible in the lab. We are constantly being bombarded with a daunting amount of sensory information, and it’s a wonder that any of us can make it out the door in the morning without being overwhelmed. Our brains do their best to keep us living happy, healthy lives free of decision fatigue, sensory overload, and debilitating stress. But sometimes, the very mechanisms our brains use to lighten our cognitive loads can also be those obstacles preventing us from overcoming illness. Being more aware of the various cognitive biases that plague the human race can have a noticeable impact on your treatment outcomes.

What cognitive biases are affecting you? Leave me a comment if you have stories of your own cognitive bias.


photo by: Tim J Keegan


  1. Chris says:

    Is it possible that overcompensating for certain other biases (such as the optimism bias, the self-serving bias and overconfidence) can also make anxiety worse? What’s the best way to correct for biases when overcompensating would be harmful?

  2. Hmm iis anyone else experiencing problems with thee images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying tto find out if its a prooblem on my end or if
    it’s the blog. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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