Cognitive Biases

In life we don’t always know everything there is to know about people or situations.  What typically happens is that we use our past experiences or knowledge that we have gained to “fill in the blanks”.  This leads us to create our own reality based on our individual perceptions on what is going on in any given situation.

A person’s determination of reality may dictate how they behave and what conclusions they reach about people and situations.  Their determination of reality does not include only objective input.  Therefore, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.

We are all guilty of cognitive bias.  Once you understand that it exist, you can begin to continually assess your behaviors and decisions to determine whether you might be cognitively biased.

Below are some cognitive biases to be aware of.

Fundamental Attribution Error

We judge others based on their personality or determine that what they have done is a fundamental aspect of their character but we judge ourselves on the situation we find ourselves in.

“Mary came late to work so she’s lazy. I came late to work because I had a rough morning.”

Self-serving bias

You take credit for positive events or outcomes, but blame outside factors for negative events and outcomes.

“I worked hard on that project and won the award. I failed the certification test because the room was too cold.”

In-group favoritism

We favor people who are in the same group as you (think race, tribe, gender,…) and disfavor people who are not in your group.

“I’ll give the job to Jim because he is in my tribe.”

Bandwagon Effect

Ideas, fads, and beliefs that become popular as more people adopt them.

“I’ll buy this style of dress because I’ve seen it on many other people and celebrities.”


Because we desire to conform and be in harmony with others, we make irrational decisions to minimize conflict.

Your friends want to go sky diving. You are terrified of heights but agree to go skydiving anyway.

Forer effect (aka Barnum effect)

We easily attribute our personalities to vague statements, even if they can apply to a wide range of people.

“Today’s horoscope is so accurate about my situation.”

Dunning-Kruger effect

The less you know, the more confident you are.  The more you know, the less confident you are.

Jamie confidently assured Irene that the dessert did not contain nuts even though he did not know the ingredients in the dessert.


We rely heavily on the first piece of information introduced when making decisions.

“That item is 50% off.  That must be a good deal!”

Automation bias

We trust automated systems more than other people or even ourselves.

You computer suggests that you should change “their” to “there” and you assume it must be correct.

Google effect (aka as digital amnesia)

The tendency to forget / not retain information that can be easily looked up using search engines.

Needing to look up the syntax for a particular command even if you have used it several times before.

Halo effect

When you think positively about someone, that positive impression will affect how you think about anything they do. 

“Mickey is so cute, he could never have done what you are accusing him of.”

Moral luck

Better moral standing happens due to a positive outcome.  Worse moral standing happens due to a negative outcome.

“He won the debate because he is morally superior to the loser.”

False consensus

We believe more people agree with us that is actually the case.

“Everybody agrees that …”

Curse of knowledge

Once we know something, we assume everyone else knows it too.

Frank finds it difficult to understand that the new staff members do not understand how to use the company systems.

Spotlight effect

We overestimate how much people are paying attention to our behavior and appearance.

Julie is worried that everyone is going to notice the tiny stain on her shirt.

Availability heuristic

We rely on immediate examples that come to mind when making judgements.

When trying to decide with brand of shoes to buy, you choose the brand you most recently saw an ad for.

Defensive attribution

If you fear being in the same predicament as a victim, you are likely to blame the victim more than the attacker for the mishap.

One woman may accuse a rape victim of dressing provocatively.

Just-world Hypothesis

A belief that he world is just.  Therefore, any acts of injustice are well deserved.

“Jane tripped and broke her leg because she was mean to Peter.”

Naïve realism

A belief that we observe objective reality and that other people are irrational, uninformed or biased. 

“My point of view is the only reality.  All other people are dumb.”

Naïve cynicism

A belief that we observe objective reality and that other people have a higher egocentric bias than they actually do.

“The only reason he is being nice to me is because he wants to get something from me.”

Whether consciously or sub-consciously, we use cognitive biases as a short-cut to arriving at decisions or conclusions. Because our biases can cause us to be irrational, it is important to continually assess whether we are objectively assessing situations.  This way we make the best decisions for ourselves and our organizations.