We may think we are rational human beings, but actually, we are often swayed by distorted thinking patterns called cognitive biases.

Our brains are complicated. We may think that we are always rational and make the best decisions based on available evidence. However, our thinking processes can sometimes be led astray by cognitive bias. These unproductive thinking patterns affect our lives in many ways.

Distorted thinking can happen for a variety of reasons.

Social pressures, motivations, and emotions can all be factors. The way our memories work can also affect the way we process information. Distorted thinking can sometimes result from overthinking or from having too much choice. The mind’s limited ability to process information can also lead to us taking shortcuts to come up with solutions.

But it does not mean we are stupid. Even the most intelligent people sometimes slip into thinking this way. Intelligent people may overthink or search excessively for further information beyond what is necessary. In fact, we all slip into distorted thinking patterns or cognitive bias at times and we wouldn’t be able to function in the world if we didn’t.

If we had to process every piece of information available to us, our minds’ would become overloaded. So our brains have some tricks they use to help process information quickly. Much of the time this is useful and necessary. However, it can also lead to us making mistakes in our thinking.

Sometimes we simply accept things at face value without questioning our assumptions or beliefs. Other times, we believe things to be true even when evidence points to the opposite. We also don’t give equal weight to all forms of information.

These distorted thinking patterns are called cognitive biases. Here are just a few of them.

1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is when we are more likely to believe information that matches the preconceptions we already hold.

For example, many people believe that when there is a full moon, hospital emergency rooms are busier. However, many studies have shown that there is no evidence for this. Our belief that full moons affect people’s behavior is strong and is remarkably common in hospitals. At the same time, a study, published in the journal Nursing Research, found absolutely no evidence for it (Margot, 2015).

2. Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias occurs when we give extra weight to the first piece of information we receive on a subject. So, if we learn something new, but later discover information that says the opposite, we are more likely to believe the first piece of information.

3. Bandwagon effect

The likelihood of us believing something increases based on the number of other people who believe it. We may think we are making a rational decision, but often we are just jumping on the bandwagon.

I guess we think that the more people that believe something, the more likely it is to be true. But of course, they may not have thought it through either!

4. Conservatism bias

People don’t change long-standing beliefs easily. We are more likely to believe existing evidence that has stood the test of time than we are new and emerging evidence. This is why radical new ideas such as evolution and germ theory take such a long time to be accepted.

5.The ostrich effect

Everyone knows that we are sometimes tempted to bury our heads in the sand rather than face our problems. In fact, we sometimes completely ignore negative information. Perhaps that’s why people continue to smoke even when they know it is harmful to their health.

6. The placebo effect

The Placebo effect is when thinking something will affect us actually causes that effect. The placebo effect is common in medicine. If a person receives medication that they think will help them, it often does, even if that medicine turns out to have been just a sugar pill.

There is also an opposite bias called the Nocebo effect. In one study, in Italy, patients who were lactose intolerance were falsely told they were being given lactose. 44 % of the participants later reported symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort even though they had never actually had any lactose.

7. Survivorship bias

Survivorship bias or survival bias is when we concentrate on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlook those that did not.

So, for example, we may believe starting a business is easy because we see many successful businesses around us. However, we do not see the many businesses that have failed.

Closing thoughts

It is impossible to live and function in the world without occasionally slipping into distorted thinking. However, being aware that these biases can occur enables us to think more critically and avoid them when making important decisions.

It is always worth working on our critical thinking skills so that we don’t slip into distorted ways of thinking.

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