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Thinking biases

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Published: 12 October 2020

Two University of Sunderland in London students studying

Thinking, or cognitive, biases can be explained as the mistakes we make in our reasoning. They come about when we misinterpret information we’re given in some way.  

As a student, you need to know about your biases if you’re going to make reasoned and well thought through arguments in your assignments. With that in mind, we’ve broken down the five most common thinking biases to help you out. 

Because we’re all human, these are mistakes everyone makes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the important thing is how you identify and learn from your biases to improve your work and grow. 

 

1) Confirmation bias 

What it isWhen you pay more attention to ideas or people that you agree with.  

Example: Say you think being left-handed makes you more creative than right-handed. Anytime you come across an artistic person who happens to be right-handed you’re likely to ignore the evidence and assume they’re not creative. 

Overcoming it: Talk to a wide a range of people with different beliefs then come to a decision. That could mean reading lots of articles before writing about your own ideas.  

 

2) Halo effect 

What it isHow you think of someone overall is affected by one part of their character. 

Example: Thinking because someone iattractive that they’ll be a good person overall.  

Overcoming it: Remind yourself to look again before making a decision. That could mean re-reading an article ahead of including it in your assignment. 

 

3) Hawthorne effect 

What it is: Someone who knows they’re being watched will change the way they behave. 

Example: If you’re observed while working, you’re more likely to work harder than if you weren’t. 

Overcoming it: When doing observational research, as you might for a dissertation, take a long-term approach. Make sure you’re being as discrete as possible to avoid effecting the way people act. 

 

4) Negativity bias 

What it is: You pay more attention to, and remember better, things that are negative. 

Example: Lots of studies have proven this bias. One famous one was where the researchers found that the feeling of losing £20 had more impact on peoples behaviour than the happy emotion of finding £20. 

Overcoming it: If you find that you have a lot of negative thoughts, spend time actively thinking about the positive things you're reading. Sometimes just being aware of your negative biases can help you beat them. 

 

5) Bandwagon effect 

What it is: You tend to believe something if lots of other people do too, even if the evidence shows you otherwise. 

Example: Everyone in your friendship group thinks bananas taste better than apples. You eat bananas too even though you prefer apples. 

Overcoming it: Work out what your opinion would be if you didn’t know other peoples’ opinions. Would you still make the same decision?  

 

There are many more kinds of confirmation bias in the world and we can all fall into the trap of following any of them.  

The main thing you need to know is that thinking through your ideas and beliefs, trying to be objective, is the most effective way to overcome your prejudices. 

If you’d like to know more about other kinds of confirmation bias, look up the Dunning Kruger Effect, the Ikea Effect, Outcome Bias and the Planning Fallacy. 

We’d love to hear how you overcome your biases. Share your examples with the community on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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