What is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is a failure in judgment caused by memory, social attribution, and statistical errors. Cognitive biases are common to all humans, and many of them follow obvious and predictable patterns. Humans develop cognitive biases for a variety of reasons; they help the brain to process information quickly, for example, even when that processing is sometimes wrong. Many social psychologists have spent a great deal of time understanding cognitive bias, as it is such an important part of the human mind.

Understanding and recognizing cognitive bias in yourself and others is a very useful skill. By taking bias into account when evaluating a situation or when someone retells an event, you can make more accurate decisions that are based on facts, rather than tricks of your mind. Cognitive bias is a powerful force in decision making, especially in groups, and it also distorts our perspective of people and the world.

If you find yourself on a jury at some point in your life, your knowledge of cognitive bias could be extremely important. Cognitive bias can make a witness extremely unreliable, and is something you should consider when hearing testimony. Cognitive bias also plays a role in your interpretation of speeches by the prosecution and defense, and in the way you look at witnesses in a courtroom.

Hundreds of cognitive biases have been identified by social scientists. The selection below is very small, and the descriptions of these biases and the ways they work are truncated. If you want to learn more about specific cognitive biases, you can explore wiseGEEK for individual social psychology articles, or you may want to take a social psychology course at your local university.

One cognitive bias you're probably familiar with is the bandwagon effect, in which people tend to agree with what other members of the group are doing. This effect is part of a larger group of interesting social behaviors, sometimes called "groupthink." Speaking of groups, you may also be familiar with the effects of group bias, in which people tend to see "their" group as better and more diverse. , while outsiders are considered collectively inferior.

You may also have been guilty at some point of projection bias, in which you assume other people think like you do. Projection bias can lead to the false consensus effect, in which people mistakenly believe that a group of people agree on an issue when this is not, in fact, the case. In a courtroom, you need to be especially careful about anchoring, your brain's tendency to weigh the first piece of information it receives most intensely.

You also need to watch out for confirmation bias, a very common form of cognitive bias. The phenomenon of confirmation bias explains why people tend to ignore information that does not agree with their beliefs while giving more weight to pleasant information. Another common cognitive bias is the fundamental attribution error, in which people attribute behaviors to people's personalities, rather than social and environmental factors.

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