Friday, January 6, 2023

Insight: Putting my decisions through cognitive bias testing

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

On the drive home from work one evening last month, I listened to a radio program on NPR’s “Life Kit” about cognitive bias and how it affects our daily lives no matter who we are.

Put simply, the premise for this radio discussion was that each person’s personal bias leads to our fixating on negativity more than dwelling on the positive aspects of our lives. It cited as examples how a friend’s negative comments about a particular movie could influence you into not watching that film or why a student would choose a particular major for their college studies because it matched their potential career choices they were aiming for.

Participants in the “Life Kit” discussion suggested that negativity bias can be dangerous because it can lead us into making the wrong choices. In some cases, that negative bias can prevent us from making an important decision because we have doubts about what turns out to be the proper choice.

To examine a situation and make a better decision, those leading the radio discussion talked about playing up the positive attributes of an outcome first. They mentioned that many businesses and product marketers use this tactic frequently, such as the meat department of a grocery store labeling packages of ground beef as 80/20. The 80, of course, means that the ground beef is 80 percent lean, rather than the fact that it contains 20 percent fat.

Yale University Psychology Professor Woo-Kyoung Ahn has written a book about cognitive bias called “Thinking 101: How to Reason Better to Think Better,” and was a participant in the “Life Kit” radio discussion.

She said she believes that the development of human biases originally helped our ancestors to make quick decisions for survival, but as humans, as we have progressed through the centuries, some of those inherent biases now work to our detriment.

Ahn says that the most common cognitive biases that we all possess include having a tendency to overestimate our abilities to solve problems, fixating on negativity, and shaping facts to match our beliefs and views about life.

Ahn recommends that the best way to avoid cognitive bias is to be aware of our human predisposition toward bias and to not make snap or rash decisions.

She says that by taking extra time to think things through before making a significant decision will reduce our human tendency to make faulty assumptions. In weighing situations that arise in daily life, Ahn advocates focusing equally on both the positive and negative aspects of issues before reaching any decision.

Lastly, Ahn says that we should all make a conscious effort to examine issues and current events from a variety of perspectives, instead of always relying on our previous thoughts and assumptions about those same issues and events.

As the executive editor of a daily newspaper in Maine, I once had to interview and hire applicants several years ago for an available reporting position with the newspaper. One reporter applicant I interviewed wore dirty torn grey sweatpants to the job interview and I could see her pink undergarments through the holes. I examined her resume carefully and liked her college background and the fact she had grown up in the community that the newspaper covered. She knew some of the key issues facing the community but could not tell me who the city’s mayor was currently or who the school superintendent was.

I did try and play up her positive attributes as a candidate and play down her negative aspects if she joined our staff, but I had a hard time getting past the fact that she could not put on clean clothing in decent shape to wear to a job interview with a prospective employer. She did not get the job and I stand by my decision, cognitive bias or not.

When the first season of the TV show “Breaking Bad” aired on AMC, I did not watch it because its star, Bryan Cranston, had played the father on the “Malcolm in the Middle” situation comedy and I could not picture him as a serious actor. A year later though, after reading a positive review of the show, I did indeed watch it and found it to be one of the best programs I’ve ever seen. My own incorrect impressions nearly prevented me from viewing one of my all-time favorites and Cranston won numerous Emmy Awards for Best Actor for that role. There’s a lesson to be learned there, for sure, about my own cognitive bias.

My mother cooked most of our family’s meals when I was growing up and she insisted that her children eat as many different types of vegetables for supper as possible through what she called her “Vegetable of the Day.” She prepared and served spinach, rutabaga, squash, lima beans, beets, parsnips, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, green beans, sweet potatoes, green peppers, creamed corn, kale, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and asparagus.

My experience with some of those vegetables led me as an adult to loathe and detest lima beans, creamed corn, and fried parsnips and to eliminate them for my diet completely and forever.

Call it my own personal cognitive bias. <

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