the era of cognitive bias

Jeff Desjardins offers this remarkable visualization of 188 cognitive biases that have been documented so far. This graphic adds value by organizing them in categories and subcategories. Click on the image to explore it.

We are witnessing a major turn to cognitive science. It has affected economics, which used to presume rational economic decision-makers who maximized their utility, but which now increasingly understands economic actors as deeply influenced by biases. It also affects a “civics class” view of democracy in which citizens can form opinions about policies and vote accordingly. It supports the alternative view, already championed by Schumpeter and Lippmann nearly a century ago, that people are highly imperfect reasoners when they turn to politics.

I believe all of this must be taken very seriously. However …

  1. We must be careful how to generalize about these findings. Because of our cognitive limitations, we tend to over-generalize specific observations. As a result, we may give too much credence to specific findings, or take a heterogeneous batch of findings as evidence of an oversimplified view of human cognition as a whole. It would be ironic if we over-stated human cognitive limitations because of our Belief Bias or Ambiguity Bias or some other documented limitation. See this piece for that same point.
  2. We should bear moral differences in mind. The Implicit Bias Test shows that most White Americans exhibit negative biases toward Black people. The same test also reveals many other biases. Racist biases could therefore be understood as mere examples of our hard-wired need to use heuristics to interpret the booming, buzzing confusion of the world that we experience. But negative racial stereotypes are worse than most other biases, at least in a country where having Black skin has always been dangerous. Moral distinctions cannot arise from the science of cognition; we must bring them separately to bear.
  3. We can design processes and contexts to manage cognitive biases. My favorite example (which I think I took from someone else): we did not evolve to be able to measure time as precisely as modern life requires. So we wear time-measuring devices on our bodies and hang them all over our walls. Likewise, we did not evolve to understand–or even to care about–news from foreign places. So we invented journalism and found ways to pay for it. The lesson is to steer between (a) naive optimism about humans’ mental capacities and (b) deterministic pessimism about human limitations. Our constraints are built in, but what we do about them is up to us.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalisticevolution, game theory, and the morality of modern human beingsdon’t confuse bias and judgmentpopular theories of political psychology, challenged by dataqualms about Behavioral EconomicsJoseph Schumpeter and the 2016 election.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.