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200 cognitive biases rule our everyday thinking
Almost 200 cognitive biases rule our everyday thinking. A new codex boils them down to 4.
- Nearly 200 cognitive biases affect our decision-making.
- The sheer amount of biases should teach us humility.
- And we should recognize the essential role they play in life, as well.
Aside from mythical spiritual figures and biblical kings, humans are not objective in how they react to the world. As much as we would like to be fair and impartial about how we deal with the situations that arise on a daily basis, we process them through a complex series of internal biases before deciding how to react. Even the most self-conscious of us cannot escape the full spectrum of internal prejudices.
Brain biases can quickly become a hall of mirrors. How you understand and retain knowledge about cognitive shortcuts will determine what, if any, benefits you can derive from the substantial psychological science that's been done around them. Here we take a look at different ways of understanding cognitive biases, and different approaches to learning from them. Enjoy!
The Peter Baumann approach
Originally a pioneer of German electronic dance music, Peter Baumann now devotes himself to exploring the science and philosophy of the human experience. To him, cognitive biases are everything and nothing.
There is nothing that is not a bias.
We prefer sweet food to bitter food, solid ground to unstable ground, and are imbued with cultural assumptions that help us live more peacefully in society. Noting that biases exist in the biological domain, Baumann frees cognitive bias from the trap of being views as an entirely mental phenomenon.
Biases do not obstruct a healthy or positive life.
Biases are shortcuts we've inherited through past generations. They are designed to help us to survive. Confirmation bias, for example, solve the problem of not being able to take in all the world's information each time we make a decision. Of course, being closed off to new information is equally hazardous in modern society, where information is the currency of our knowledge-driven world.
Baumann's favorite bias?
The uniqueness bias amuses him the most because it's a bias that each person necessarily has. We all think of ouselves as unique because each person is at the center of their own existence. But interestingly, there are circles of uniqueness. People you have close relationships with are more unique than people you don't know. Which of course has some obvious limitations as a reliable point of view.
What to do about biases
Listen better, says Baumann. Understanding the predispositions we bring to the table should make us more open to understanding other people's points of view. If you're not so special, not so right, not so perfect all the time, there's a greater likelihood that you have something valuable to learn from others.
The Buster Benson approachBenson/Manoogian III
Buster Benson (a marketing manager at Slack) decided to organize 175 known biases into a giant codex.
Benson (with help from illustrations by John Manoogian III), sorted biases for duplicates and grouped them into four larger categories, each called a "conundrum" or "problem". All four of these limit our intelligence but are actually trying to be helpful. According to Benson, "Every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy." But the end result of utilizing such mental shortcuts, which are often useful, is that they also introduce errors into our thinking. By becoming aware of how our minds make decisions, we can be mindful of the inherent inaccuracies and fallacies and hopefully act with more fairness and grace.
Here's how Benson divides up more than 200 cognitive biases into four problems that biases actually help address:
The world is a set of information that's just too enormous for your brain to handle.
If something has already been in our memories and we're used to seeing that issue a certain way, that's how our brain is likely to react to it again. The biases that stem from this are plenty - the Attentional Bias, for example, that tells us to perceive events through our recurring thoughts at that time. This prevents us from considering alternate paths and possibilities.
Our biases that result from this kind of thinking include the context effects, the mood-congruent memory bias, or the empathy gap, which makes us underestimate the influence of visceral drives on our attitudes and actions.
And because you can't grasp everything, you'll always be missing a lot of essential information.
We utilize stereotypes and quick fill-in-the-gaps thinking to make decisions about something when we don't know everything about it. Mental mistakes like the Group attribution error, Ultimate attribution error, Stereotyping, Essentialism, the Bandwagon effect and the Placebo effect all arise from such a cognitive approach.
According to Benson, and probably to your own life experience, we also tend to like more the things and the people we know than those we don't. In this grouping, we'd find the Cheerleader effect and the Positivity effect among others.
You need to act fast, so you'll be relying on a limited set of information.
These cognitive issues arise from having to make decisions without having all the time and information you'd prefer. We often have to decide on a course of action quickly, relying on biases and instinct rather than all the possible facts.
One way to make decisions quickly is to do it with confidence, convincing yourself that what you're doing is important. Because of this, we often get overconfident, leading to such biases as the Dunning-Kruger effect, when people overestimate their abilities as well as Optimism Bias and Armchair Fallacy.
When we have to just go for it, we also tend to "favor the immediate," write Benson. The thing in front of us is worth much more than something potential and distant.
You need to remember some things. But it's impossible (and totally undesirable) to remember everything.
There's just so much information that permeates our daily lives that we are constantly made to choose between what to address and what to forget. This overload results in choosing generalizations and other biases that help us deal with the data onslaught.
Some of the tactics we rely on include creating false memories or discarding specifics in favor of stereotypes and prejudices. Unfortunately, it's just easier to function that way for some people.
We also tend to reduce events and lists to commonalities, choosing a small number of items to stand for the whole. Another thing we do is storing memories based on how we experienced them. This is when the circumstances of the experience affect the value we place on it. This is also when we get such great biases as the Tip of the tongue phenomenon, which is when we feel like we are about to remember something but we just fail to do it. You know that feeling.
Another fun modern bias of this kind is the Google effect, also called "digital amnesia". This is when we quickly forget information easily found online using a search engine like Google. Let's see if that happens with this article.
You can buy the codex (now featuring 188 biases) here. Hang it on your wall (and hopefully let some of it inform your thinking)!
"You look at this overwhelming array of cognitive biases and distortions, and realize how there are so many things that come between us and objective reality," Manoogian explained The Huffington Post. "One of the most overwhelming things to me that came out of this project is humility."
The reductive approach
While there nearly 200 cognitive biases that frame our decision making each day, here are 20 that you might want to pay particular attention to. At Business Insider, Samantha Lee put together a great infographic showing 20 cognitive biases that can get in the way of solid decision-making.
The Julia Galef approach
Julia Galef, President of the Center for Applied Rationality, says that looking at issues as an outsider is a surefire approach to outwit the commitment bias and the sunk-cost fallacy. Intel famously used this approach to leave behind a faltering memory-chip product for more lucrative ventures.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."