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Thinking Errors & Biases
Martine Bolton

The quality of any outcome is traceable back through the actions and decisions that were taken, to how the individual was feeling and thinking, building up to it.

Being human, our thinking isn’t always perfect.  In fact, sometimes it can be far from it, and is affected by all sorts of variables, including the filters through we which we see the world – for example, our values, beliefs, mindset, attitude, past experiences, and so on.

A multitude of different thinking errors and cognitive biases have been identified and classified over the years, highlighting how we frequently delete, distort and generalise the information that comes to us.  To follow is a selection of some of the most common.  As you read them, identify any you may have found yourself doing personally, and consider the implications for yourself, others and maybe the wider world:

  •  Filtering : describes how we pay attention to certain details, but filter out others.  An example of this is noticing someone’s negative qualities and failing to see their good ones (or vice versa).
  • Personalisation : when we assume that something negative that happens is about us personally – seeing ourselves as the cause, and taking the blame when it wasn’t our fault.
  • Polarised thinking : believing that things are either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, or taking an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to life.
  • Over-generalising : when we jump to an overly general conclusion about something, based on limited experience.
  • Catastrophising : a form of negative, irrational thinking where we believe situations are far worse than they actually are.
  • Emotional reasoning : when we feel a certain way about something, and assume that we must be right (“I feel… therefore it is…”).
  • Labelling: where we take one characteristic of a person, place or thing, and apply it to the whole.
  • Always being right: where we believe that our beliefs and opinions are always the right ones.
  • Mind-reading: when we think we know what other people are thinking without checking it out with them.
  • Control fallacies: where we assume we have an inaccurate amount of control, maybe believing we can control everything, or believing we can control nothing.
  • Blaming : when we hold other people responsible for our feelings, actions and/or results.
  • Fallacy of fairness : when we believe that life is always supposed to be fair.  When it isn’t fair, we feel angry, cheated, or maybe even envious of others who seem to be having more luck.
  • Heaven’s reward fallacy: an expectation that if we work hard and/or give selflessly to others, that we will be rewarded for it.
  •  Shoulds: hold a lot of beliefs about what we, and others, should and shouldn’t do, and how we should and shouldn’t behave. Different people from different backgrounds can have very different ideas about this.
  • Confirmation bias: we tend to see what we want to see, and disregard the rest.
  •  The Halo and Horn Effects : evaluating someone’s overall character based on one feature or aspect.  In the halo effect, this might mean assuming that someone who looks good is good; in the horn effect, this might mean assuming that someone who doesn’t look good isn’t good.
  • Status quo bias: This is a preference for sticking with the way things are rather than changing them – even when it’s not in your (or everyone’s) best interests to do so.
  • Groupthink: when a group or team of people are (or become) so similar in their outlook that they lose the ability to think in creative and divergent ways.  In this situation, a random divergent thinker may feel highly uncomfortable offering thoughts that go against the grain, hence perspectives can go unchallenged, meaning outcomes become compromised.
  • Self-serving bias: the tendency to give ourselves credit for our successes, but lay the blame for our failures on external causes.  This enables us to maintain self-esteem.
  • Bandwagon effect: the tendency to buy, do or believe things, just because other people buy, do or believe the same. The more people there are doing something, the more inclined we are to jump on the bandwagon – regardless of the facts.
  • Negativity bias: Most (if not all) of us pay more attention, and give more weight, to information of a negative nature than that of a positive nature.  It’s to do with our survival instinct, and being on the alert for danger or anything that might prove to be a threat.
  • Optimism bias: where we overestimate the probability of positive events happening, and underestimate the probability of negative events.
  •  In-group bias: the tendency to trust and value people within our social circle (or those we perceive to be like us) more than we do other people.
  • Assuming that perception is reality : We think that what we see and hear is representative of how things really are.

This is an abridged version of the orginal article written by Martine.  To read the article in full please click here.

Author: Martine Bolton.  Taken from the forthcoming book: “Your Thinking is Your Superpower” – out Autumn 2019.


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