What are cognitive biases?

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.

Why do they matter?

  • They are essential for UX designers and researchers to understand, as cognitive biases will influence how a user behaves at any given time.

  • They explain why we do the things we do, build empathy towards others and help us come to terms with any mistakes we may have made in the past.

How many cognitive biases are out there?

Many cognitive biases can be merged or are closely related to one another, but the Wikipedia lists about 104 of them. Below I will be covering 7 cognitive biases that I find particularly interesting from a Design/Marketing perspective.

1. Anchoring Bias

Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias where an individual relies too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (considered to be the “anchor”) when making decisions.

This can affect us when negotiating a salary or the price of a car, as well as when we go shopping during a sale. Studies have shown that arbitrary numerical anchors – such as the last two digits of your ID card – can influence the amount we are willing to pay for a given product.

This is particularly relevant when an initial pricing is set for an item or service – say, a dress at the start of the fashion season or a TV set 40 years ago – and then that amount is lowered due to a sale or advancements in technology and living standards.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, when prices rise due to high-demand and/or a decrease in availability, consumers will generally be more reticent to pay the increased amount, such as with the price of petrol or housing rent. Research shows, however, that eventually consumers will become used to the new pricing standard and the initial anchor will be replaced by the new one.

2. Availability heuristic

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled.

For example:

  • My friend, who works as a receptionist at a hospital, sees sick people everywhere, and doesn’t think of all the healthy people that don’t have to go to the hospital.
  • My mother is worried about me going out and being abducted because there is so much media coverage of girls disappearing, and she can’t recall the many times I have been out and about and returned home safely.
  • I think of myself as a good poker player because I have won – quite theatrically - twice or thrice. I still remember that awesome night, and yet can’t recall the countless times I’ve lost at the game. Neither can my partner, who also perceives me as a great poker player.

It’s important to be aware of this heuristic because it affects what we worry about as well as the assumptions we make for the future based on little or no evidence from the past, albeit them being happy anecdotes.

3. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

  • In research, it is essential to be as detached as possible from your initial assumptions, as they can cloud your judgment later in the research process – we might assume we are right from the start.
  • When discussing politics or religion, people who are particularly attached to their ideas struggle to come to terms with the incongruence within any belief system – we might assume so and so can do no wrong, that we know ‘the truth’ and others don’t, or that a politician is evil.
  • When it comes to our feelings towards other people or institutions, we tend to defend and justify actions and events that we would not be backing up if it weren’t for those feelings – me might assume that they did something bad with good intentions even if evidence proves otherwise.

4. Empathy gap

A hot-cold empathy gap is a cognitive bias in which people underestimate the influences of visceral drives on their own attitudes, preferences, and behaviours.

It argues that, because human understanding is “state-dependent”, when one is angry, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one to be calm, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be in love.

An inability to minimise one’s gap in empathy can lead to negative outcomes in medical settings (e.g.when a doctor needs to accurately diagnose the physical pain of a patient), and in workplace settings (e.g. when an employer needs to assess the need for an employee’s bereavement leave).

  • In product building, being aware of the empathy gap helps us understand how and why users might make certain choices.
  • On a personal level, it helps us understand the sometimes irrational behaviour of our friends, family and acquaintances.
  • And, of course, it also helps us understand ourselves.

5. The IKEA effect

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.

The price is low for IKEA products largely because they take labor out of the equation. Customers can very literally build an entire home’s worth of furniture on a very tight budget. Even when there are parts missing and the items are incorrectly built, customers in the IKEA study still loved the fruits of their labours.

  • People become attached to the things they make or build because there’s the element of pride thrown into the mix. This can be seen in homemade food, DIY projects or handmade gifts.
  • Dan Ariely argues that the IKEA effect is the reason why many people will choose a more fulfilling job regardless of remuneration – because they value the craft they get to perform every day.
  • The IKEA effect can become problematic when someone attaches too much value to something they produced and therefore is unable to spot a better option when available.

6. The sunk costs fallacy

The sunk cost effect is the general tendency for people to continue an endeavour, or continue consuming or pursuing an option, if they’ve invested time or money or some resource in it. That effect becomes a fallacy if it’s pushing you to do things that are making you unhappy or worse off.

These are some examples of people falling in to the Sunk costs fallacy:

  • You will go to a concert you’ve bought tickets for even if you are ill and will be having a terrible time there.
  • You will hang onto an expensive piece of clothing you never wear (because it doesn’t fit you or you don’t have an occasion to wear it to), and you will feel guilty every time you see it accumulating dust in your wardrobe.
  • If a degree is 5 years long and you are on year 3, you push through another two years of painful studying in order to finish it.

This is particularly relevant for Agile environments, where iterating and re-prioritising based on recent insights is paramount, as many times teams will struggle to let go of certain projects because of the amount of time and energy they have already put into them.

7. The Bias Blind Spot

But of course there was going to be a bias about biases!

The bias blind spot is the cognitive bias of recognising the impact of biases on the judgment of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one’s own judgment.

While working on an explanation or example for the Confirmation bias, I came up with the idea that Pride and Prejudice’s was built upon the confirmation bias. Without going into too much detail, the main character – Elizabeth Bennet – has a first encounter with the hero – Darcy – that doesn’t go well and influences her opinion of him for the rest of the story. As a result, everything Darcy does in order to fix that relationship will be misinterpreted by Elizabeth, as she is looking for ways to confirm that Darcy is a despicable man (because, really, he didn’t think her attractive enough to dance with).

When I came up with this thesis, I googled it up and found an article about that same idea, which confirmed my thesis. This alone confirmed my own assumption, meaning I fell into the confirmation bias myself!

Find out more

I hope I have given you some food for thought, and that you want to learn more about cognitive biases. The books below are great introductions to cognitive biases and behavioural economics.

  • Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  • The art of thinking clearly, Rolf Dobelli
  • Factfulness, Hans Rosling