Built-in Biases, Continued: Two Systems of the Brain, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Confirmation Bias

Awareness to Action
Aug 4, 2021

Part of an ongoing series on Clear-Thinking Skills. These articles excerpted from “How to Think Well, and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking,” which is available in paperback and e-book via amazon.com.

Two Systems of the Brain

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” has helped popularize the idea that we have two general cognitive systems for processing information. Kahneman’s book is one of many popular volumes published in recent years that describe what we have learned from the cognitive sciences over the past few decades about the workings of the mind. These insights can provide very useful insights in how to use the Enneagram to create change.

System 1, as Kahneman describes, is fast, heuristic-based thinking. It relies on deeply rooted, non-conscious mental models that allow us to make quick decisions without having to think any more than absolutely necessary, if we think at all. The beauty of System 1 is that it is generally good enough to help us meet the basic demands of daily life without requiring us to expend too much energy.

Unfortunately, System 1 is not always accurate. While it is often very effective for solving short-term problems, it can cause us to act in ways that undermine us in the long run.

System 2 is slow, rational thinking. It is the conscious, deliberate weighing of variables and data and considering of long-term consequences. It is more accurate, but it also requires more caloric energy and thus takes a physical toll on us, so we tend to minimize its use. (Ever notice how tired you are after a long period of concentrated thinking or attention? This is the result of System 2 causing the brain to burn a lot of energy.)

Broadly, the existence of these two systems means that we have access to two thinking modes that both serve a useful end, but we sometimes use one when we should use the other–with unfortunate results. For example, we may come to regret relying on System 2 slow thinking when we accidentally step out into traffic or relying on System 1 fast thinking when deciding to buy a used car.

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress caused by contradictory ideas battling for space in our minds. Such tension causes us stress and anxiety, so our mind seeks to dispel it as quickly as possible. It does so by finding a way to reject one of the ideas without due consideration—usually the one that contradicts our currently held beliefs.

The root of cognitive dissonance is in our attempt to maintain our self-esteem. We all want to think well of ourselves. Few of us see ourselves as bad people, even if we sometimes make mistakes. When we do something that contradicts our perception of ourselves, we experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. We then fall victim to a variety of cognitive biases—automatic mental models that can distort our thinking. Embracing these biases is the brain’s way of dispelling the dissonance and protecting our positive view of ourselves.

For example, if we think we are doing well in our job and we get negative feedback in a 360 assessment, it is tempting to rationalize the feedback by attributing ignorance or malice to the source of the comments we don’t like, or to assume that the comments are based on insufficient or flawed data. If we design a product we truly believe in but it is not well-received by the market, it is tempting to blame the users or believe that our product is “too ahead of its time” rather than think there might be something wrong with the product.

It is helpful to understand that cognitive dissonance and our attempts to mitigate it happen below the level of our awareness—we don’t do it on purpose. Our brain identifies the tension before we consciously register it and it sets us on the course of some process to make it go away by applying a cognitive bias. We all do it, and we don’t realize it. We don’t do it because we are bad people, it happens unless we train ourselves to look for signs of cognitive dissonance (such as, the stress we feel when confronted with an idea we don’t like) and take steps to avoid falling into the traps of our mitigating biases.

Confirmation Bias

”Confirmation bias” is the tendency we all have to see what we want to see or what we expect to see.

It is the tendency to embrace evidence that fits our point of view (referred to as biased assimilation) and to ignore or minimize evidence that does not fit (referred to as cognitive discounting).

While there are many cognitive biases, confirmation bias is the one that can be the most common and problematic.

Confirmation bias is what causes us to be overly optimistic about projects, products, or people. At the same time, it can make us ignore signals that we should pay more attention to something we are dismissing.

Confirmation bias is a constant threat to clear and effective thinking. The best thinkers safeguard themselves by asking some simple questions: 

  • How do I know this to be true?
  • What evidence is there that I could be wrong?

They also take pride in changing their mind based on new evidence.

The next article will look at additional cognitive biases.

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