Why are we sometimes so irrational?

10 April 2016

Why are we sometimes so irrational?

We have on average 65,000 thoughts going through our minds every day, that is equivalent to 1.2 thoughts every second. On top of that, unlike a computer, we have no “delete” button, so thoughts that we had yesterday, last week, last year, remain somewhere in our minds and can pop up to haunt us at any time. We can have memories of experiences, good or bad, even from as far back as our toddler years, so is it any wonder that sometime our minds get a little “fuzzy”.

On top of this, our beliefs, morals and experiences subject us to cognitive bias, those annoying hiccups in our thinking that cause us to make questionable decisions and on occasions reach ridiculous conclusions leading to irrational behaviour. A cognitive bias is a genuine flaw in our judgement that arises from errors of memory, statistically incorrect information, false probabilities, and poor judgement from external influences. We may be prone to such errors in judgement, but if we can become more aware of them we can adjust our thinking to be more impartial and make more appropriate decisions.

Over the next few weeks we will consider a few specific “types” of bias at a time. Starting with Negativity Bias as it is one we are faced with daily.

Negativity Bias – Social scientists have proven that we give more credibility to bad news than good, probably because we consider it to be more important or influential than good news. However, we run the risk of dwelling on the negative at the expense of genuinely good news. It is a fact that violence, crime and wars have steadily declined over recent years, but most people would disagree and say “things are getting worse”, a perfect example of negativity bias working against us.

Confirmation Bias – In our perfect world everyone agrees with us, so we try to associate with others of a similar point of view, tastes and who express similar opinions to ourselves. We seek out information that confirms we are correct and ignore information that contradicts or counters our ideas and thoughts. It is suggested that the internet can make this worse by allowing us to narrow our search to information that we “like” to read and not what is objective.

Neglecting Probability - Deep down we all know that flying is safer than travelling by car, in fact the statistics show us that per 100 million miles travelled, driving averages are 1.27 fatalities and 80 injuries against flying's lack of deaths and almost no injuries, which clearly shows air travel to be safer. Yet very few of us have a problem getting in a car and going for a drive, but many of us suffer great anxiety when faced with boarding an airplane. Neglecting probability leads us to over egg the risks of what is a relatively harmless activity and vice the versa if it suits us.

Maybe you can recall the last time you experienced one of these biases, would you have acted differently if you were intentionally being impartial and recognising your own biases?

Next time we will look at the Bandwagon Effect and Projection Bias.

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