Cognitive Biases 101, with Peter Baumann

Biases are good for you, says the musician and cognitive behavior researcher: "They really guide us in a broader sense so that we don’t hurt ourselves, you know, bias towards feeling solid ground rather than wobbling ground. The interesting thing is really not to try to do away with these biases but to really recognize them and not to see them as something negative."
  • Transcript


Peter Baumann:  Well biases are one of the most interesting phenomena in evolution and I would go as far as saying there’s nothing that’s not a bias.  I mean we are biased to live in a certain temperature range and we prefer sweet food to over bitter food.  So biases are essential.  They really guide us in a broader sense so that we don’t hurt ourselves, you know, bias towards feeling solid ground rather than wobbling ground.  The interesting thing is really not to try to do away with these biases but to really recognize them and not to see them as something negative.  And yet to really understand that they cloud our clear thinking and, you know, that goes anywhere from self-deception to uniqueness bias that we think and hey, I’m one of the first ones to think I’m very unique and, you know, basically the brain evolved for us to make ourselves special, to think of us as valuable.  Otherwise we would not be able to go through the strains and the struggles and difficulties of life.

So bias is in any case negativity bias, positive bias, confirmation bias – all of these are so ingrained in us that we don’t even see them.  They are kind of transparent for us.  So the way that I like to look at it is the more we can detect them and become aware of it, it’s kind of a hide and seek, you know.  They come out of left field and the more we can become aware of them and discover them, it’s actually quite amusing how we twist reality in a way that confirms our particular view of the world.  So I don’t see them as something that’s obstructing a healthy, good, positive life but it narrows the window.  And the more we become aware of them the broader we can approach and the closer we can get to reality.

Well confirmation bias is probably one of the most pronounced biases that we have.  And anybody who’s ever bought a car and thought for a while about what kind of car they want to buy, they probably notice suddenly, oh yeah, there is that car.  There is that car again.  And suddenly the brain kind of detects in the environment something that confirms like, oh yes, that seems like a really good car.  So confirmation bias is really a way for us to reaffirm our view of the world and to some degree it’s actually essential.  If we didn’t have some kind of confirmation bias we would be lost.  We could not piece together a world that is coherent for us.  So we have to ignore certain things and other things become a little louder.  And confirmation bias is different in different cultures, you know, for some cultures in a big, broad shouldered person is very attractive and in others it’s a very elegant person or a very lively person.

And, you know, I come from Germany so in Germany the confirmation bias is towards don’t make a mistake, you know.  Get everything proper and in order and get it right.  So confirmation bias is really essential and yet it’s really valuable to recognize that what we perceive and how we view it as completely twisted by our internal biases.


I believe the value in becoming aware of biases is that it gives you the opportunity of having a little larger perspective.  The danger of not being aware of it that we think we are right.  So the value in understanding confirmation biases is that when we’re in some kind of discussion or when we go into a different culture that we recognize, you know.  The world looks different for other people and it’s not that mine is right or better or theirs is right or better and I cannot really force them to see it my way and they cannot force me to see it their way.  So recognizing that confirmation bias is completely ingrained allows us to chuckle sometimes, you know, when we kind of insist on a particular way of seeing the world whether that’s politically or whether it’s social.  It’s very important.  It allows us to actually listen to other people better and drop the confirmation bias maybe for a moment.

There’s not any particular bias that I would recognize that’s more important than the other.  But I do find the uniqueness bias especially amusing, you know, that we consider ourselves to be unique.  And the reason I believe that we have a uniqueness bias is that we are the only person that we’re with 24 hours a day so we have far more information about ourselves, about our bodies, about our history, about our capacities.  So it takes up much, much more space in our inner universe so to say.  And because we have so much more detail about ourselves and our own lives, it looms much larger than anybody else.

So the interesting thing about uniqueness bias is that it’s not just about ourselves but there are circles of uniqueness.  For instance we consider our person that we have a relationship with as more unique than other people because we know more about them.  We consider our parents often more unique than – or our siblings.  Again, because we know so much more about them.  And if you get to know somebody then they become more unique than other people.  You know, my friends are really more unique than other people’s friends, you know.  Or they’re more special.  I’m closer to them.  And it really I believe depends all on how much information we have about them and how important they are in our lives.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton