I’m Wrong…and So are You

I was listening to a TED talk by a gentleman named Tim Harford recently and thought it was good enough to share with my teammates. I also felt like a total heel as it reminded me of the cognitive biases that I tend to exhibit and it prompted this post.

Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford.html


There are literally dozens of cognitive biases….and I suffer from most of them. The good news for me? So Do You

The brain has an astounding ability to simplify, narrow focus, protect itself, pat itself on the proverbial back, attribute positive outcomes to itself, and negative outcomes to others. The rate at which the brain does this is, in a word, staggering.

I happen to work in technology where the solution set for new applications is near infinite. Software systems begin as figments of our imaginations. We interpret other peoples words, intonations, their businesses, and their emotions and we start creating. It looks controlled from the outside, probably because it’s simply text on a screen at this point. Make no mistake, its messy. It’s akin to a potter’s wheel spinning out of control with a wet mass of clay in the middle, not quite centered.

At some point, we mush other peoples messy work (and interpretations) together with ours, test it (a little) and show it to the customers. The problems that come spinning out of such a complex and chaotic process are nothing short of, well…staggering.

With that as the backdrop, I’ve worked diligently to understand my own reactions, emotions, and behaviors. Over the years, I have begun to recognize times where I will launch headlong (read: “with bravado”) into solutions without truly and deeply understanding the issues at hand (Framing). I see events in the past and think, “that was so obvious” (Hindsight Bias). I see other teams in my organization as “those bureaucratic nimrods” (Fundamental Attribution Error).

I regularly meet people who exhibit these traits in spades. I realize they don’t know they do it, but with reflection (and education) you start to see the absurd position our brains put us in. Below is a list of some of the most regular “cognitive biases” to look out for:

Via Wikipedia (where else):

  • Framing by using a too-narrow approach and description of the situation or issue.
  • Hindsight bias, sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect, is the inclination to see past events as being predictable.
  • Fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions; this is related to the concept of cognitive dissonance.
  • Self-serving bias is the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests.
  • Belief bias is when one’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by their belief in the truth or falsity of the conclusion.

With the simple act of learning about these biases, and how the brain works, I have been able to direct outcomes that are more powerful and meaningful for me and the people I interact with on a regular basis. I recommend, as a step one, that you read through some of these and reflect on times where you’ve used these biases.

Do any of these feel familiar?


8 thoughts on “I’m Wrong…and So are You

  1. What I find most cool about cognitive bias is it is in no way an absolute. Just small little nudges in one direction or another. Little influences here and there. These shape our world view and can sway a judgement that later we rationalize or interpret through other cognitive biases.

    So we initially estimate influenced by cognitive bias, then act influenced by it and finally look back and evaluate through it.

    Nasty … nasty little things.

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