Cognitive bias examples: recognize them and regain control

Relationships can be tough (even when we’re thinking clearly!). To make matters worse, cognitive bias has the potential to blur, distort and complicate relationships.

Let’s explore!

A simple definition of cognitive bias

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking. (You’ll see plenty of examples, below.)

Here’s the full definition from verywellmind:

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them and affects the decisions and judgments that they make.

Put even more simply: you’re messing things up ‘cos your head’s not straight!

Types of cognitive bias, with examples

There are many different types of cognitive bias, with many different names and labels too. My aim here is to cut through all that complexity.

Also, it’s important to note the connection to unconscious bias. Think of unconscious bias as a preference (that you might not be aware of), which cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking.

I’ve distilled down 6 types of cognitive bias, each quite distinct, and provided examples of their impact on relationships.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias examples:

  • I believe my partner is very poor at answering her mobile. I call, there’s no answer. “I knew that would happen! She never answers her phone!!!”. I forget that there are many times when she does answer her phone.
  • I believe my manager is cold and thoughtless. I do a great job on a project, all the stakeholders I work with are giving me credit. My manager remains silent. “I knew that would happen!”. I conveniently forget the times I do get credit from my manager.

Let’s face it, we all like to be right. We like to be proven right. We like to have our views confirmed (hence the name, confirmation bias). It’s an ego-boost, it’s reassuring, it gives us certainty. Being right just feels right!

Which creates confirmation bias (and several other forms of bias too!).

Confirmation bias definition: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

This can make it difficult to make progress in relationships. As you can see from the examples, we use new evidence to reinforce our existing beliefs (even if it should not!).  

Optimism / pessimism bias

Optimism / pessimism bias examples:

  • My son promises he’ll be home by 6pm for our family dinner. I know from experience that I need to text him at 4pm to be sure that he will make it home in time. But I’m feeling good, feeling optimistic. I don’t call him. He arrives late, and I blow up at him.
  • I’m feeling optimistic about my career prospects and I promise my partner a luxury holiday. Later I realize that I wasn’t realistic, I have to go back on my promise (or find money I don’t have!). The relationship suffers as a result.

We’re not Vulcans. We have emotional swings, but it’s important to recognize that our emotions also have a significant impact on our decisions.

Optimism / pessimism bias definition: the tendency for decisions to be guided by our mood.

Emotions can make our thinking and judgement irrational. This can lead to inconsistent decisions and as a result, relationships can suffer.

Sunk cost bias

Sunk cost bias examples:

  • A marriage has failed, both parties are deeply unhappy. They’ve been married for 18 years. There is so much invested. They can’t walk away, even though they know they would both be happier if they did.
  • You offer to Mentor a younger colleague. You believe they are a ‘rising star’, so you spend weeks and months with them. And the more time you spend with them, the clearer it becomes that this was a mistake. They are capable, but not outstanding. You keep investing far longer than you should.

Sunk cost bias definition: our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.

Also known as commitment bias: our tendency to remain committed to our past behaviors, particularly those exhibited publicly, even if they do not have desirable outcomes.

As a result we continue to invest and invest in a relationship, when perhaps it’s time to walk away.

There’s more detailed exploration of sunk cost bias in this litemind article.

Fundamental attribution bias

Fundamental attribution bias examples:

  • You are in a meeting, you’re not performing well. You attribute it to a bad night’s sleep, or worry about your upcoming medical exam, or even the way the meeting is being facilitated. The next day you are in a meeting, it includes a coworker you are not familiar with from another function. They’re not performing well. You think to yourself ‘wow, they’re clearly not very capable’.
  • You’re late home from work on date-night. You attribute your behavior to your demanding boss, or deadlines beyond your control. Your partner is late home from work on date-night, you say to yourself ‘they care more about work than they do about me’.

Fundamental attribution bias definition: attributing our positive behavior to our character, and poor behavior to our environment. While attributing other people’s poor behavior to their character.

Patrick Lencioni explains this:

It’s a very natural human behavior, but obviously doesn’t help our relationships!

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias examples:

  • You’re discussing how long it will take to complete a project. The first person to speak mentions “5 weeks”, this becomes the ‘anchor’ against which all further dates are measured (regardless of how appropriate 5 weeks is to the project).
  • You greet someone at the start of a job interview. They have the same phone case as you, and you like the way they’re dressed. You feel positive about them immediately. They hesitate over the first question, but you put it down to nerves.
  • You’re discussing with your partner how much to spend on a holiday. The first figure mentioned becomes the benchmark (‘anchor’) for the rest of the discussion (regardless of other more practical considerations such as your current savings, income, other plans, etc).

Anchoring bias definition: depending too heavily on an initial piece of information (considered to be the ‘anchor’) to make subsequent judgments during decision making.

This bias has most impact when you’re just starting a relationship. Whether it’s in the workplace, or in your social life, avoid those ‘snap judgements’ that are so natural. Take time to make a more balanced judgement.

Halo Bias

This is a big one.

Halo bias examples:

  • We meet someone for the first time, they are tall and attractive. We assume that they are capable too.
  • We are at a party, someone is sociable, amusing, engaging. We assume that they are intelligent too.

Take a look at the surprising power of a beautiful face.

Halo bias definition: our overall impression of a person influences our evaluation of that person’s specific traits and characteristics.

This is a major influence in both work and life and connects back to anchoring and confirmation bias. It skews the world of opportunities and relationships in favor of tall, attractive, sociable people. (There are many other examples of Halo Bias, but that’s what I feel is the most important point to consider!).

Tips for overcoming all types of cognitive bias

As you can see, these cognitive biases – these ‘errors in thinking’ – can have a significant impact on our decisions, or relationships and our life!

Here are my 5 tips for overcoming all types of cognitive bias:

  1. Explore how to become a better listener
  2. Be open to the possibility of your biases
  3. Be curious about yourself and others
  4. Request feedback from your coworkers
  5. Take time to reflect on your judgements and decisions

Apply these tips and regain control!