Self awareness and cognitive biases

People are not perfect. Some of these imperfections are known as cognitive biases. Being aware of our cognitive biases, we may be able to mitigate them. Self-awareness is strongly linked to personal wellbeing, professional success, and learning abilities. For more reading please check here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Why questions

Being a scientist, I was conditioned to ask the “why” questions, trying to get to the root cause of the issues that catch my attention. This approach pays off big time when writing algorithms, or building engineering systems. If anyone tries to mask known issues by adding further features, the new features add further problems creating huge problems.

So when dealing with my own personal issues I also was prone to ask the “why” questions. Professionals dealing with people often try to stay away from this sort of questions, instead focusing on “what is the behavior we need to change”, “when did it start” and “how it can be fixed”. I quote:

One problem with “why” questions is that people are generally not very good informants about the reasons or causes of their behavior. Asking a “why” question of a patient often draws a blank response: “I don’t know why I feel this way. I just do.”

Being a scientist, I tried to come up with several hypotheses, and test them in action. I found out that I usually fail differently, but the underlying reasons remain the same. Moreover, there is a huge research area in the psychology that identified many of these reasons. Being an engineer, I try to build mechanisms to overcome these limitations. These mechanisms are built on awareness, discipline and guided visualization.

By the way, asking “why did this happen to me out of all people” is a bit pointless. Rare events happen in everybody’s life. Some are good, some are bad. We can guide the chances and change our lives on average, but each particular event is very much random.

Five big biases

When researching cognitive biases, I find hundreds of very different and yet interconnected entries. Most of these biases are specific to some situations. I find that the five biases that are ubiquitous have a simple evolutionary explanation.

  1. Sunk costs. People are not very strong or very fast, but we do have a good stamina. When hunting an animal, it made sense to persist until the animal was down. This behavior is a part of who we are. We hate to admit failure, and once we have chosen a target, we will do anything to pursue it. Unfortunately, modern targets are much more abstract and elusive than a prey. Then we get ourselves into trouble: we are chasing something that was never there. We all hear stories of great people who chased a hard target for years until finally succeeding. People do not tell the stories of people who fail in pursuit. Even worse is trying to pursue momentary pleasures. Self-destructing behaviors can be addicting and we are often blind to them.From my personal experience, it is best to set limits. Personally, I need two levels of limits. I set how much am I willing to risk before I decide to stop, but often I miss my target. So there is a second limit: how much is too much to the point of insanity. Usually, I stop myself well before the second limit.

    Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is Einstein’s definition of insanity. So when dealing with sunk costs, at least try to fail differently each time. My thesis advisor used to say “When you research a tough subject you will probably fail, get tired, look around and find something great nearby”.

  2. Loss aversion. Losses have about twice the psychological impact of equivalent gains. We do not want to risk since it could get us killed. So we tend to overlook a great opportunity if it requires us to give up something we already have.To deal with this bias I usually resort to the power of perspectives. I imagine the life I would have if I take the opportunity, and try to ask myself if I would then prefer to have my current life instead. Some choices are really hard to make, like passing of a good meal or going to a gym. So I extrapolate: imagine myself taking 100 good meals vs going to gym 100 times and examining the results. I am still overweight, and I blame the next cognitive bias.
  3. Optimism bias. We are the children of survivors, people who got consistently lucky and thus stayed alive. Our predecessors were optimistic and believed that bad things will not happen to them, and our existence shows they were right. Being optimistic it is easier to look for new opportunities, raise children and take chances. And on average optimism pays off.We do tend to give ourselves a slack believing that something good eventually will save us from our mistakes eventually. Typically our future self will be quite remorseful when dealing with the results of our current misdemeanors. Usually, it is best to think what happens if the situation does not change for the better, or even changes for the worse. If we are OK with it, then the gamble may be justified. Otherwise, it is best to avoid it. Taking too many gambles may have a huge toll on our body and psyche even when each gamble is negligible.
  4. Confirmation bias. Quite often we choose to ignore the opinions that are different from our own and the facts that are contrary to our current beliefs. This is one of our mechanisms to deal with uncertainty. Life was pretty stable, even though there were good years and bad years. If we change our behavior every time something random happens, we would not survive.Unfortunately, life is not that stable anymore. We need to adapt very fast. It pays off to notice early warnings and to be one of the early adaptors. We can harness our next bias, and choose our friends wisely.
  5. The need to belong. A person needs to be a part of a team. This strongly increases the survivability and well-being. To be a part of a team, we need to play by the rules of the team, so we feel a strong need to conform with others.If we take 6 of our best and closest friends, our own qualities will probably be the average of the qualities of our friends. When we need to adapt a new quality, it is best to get a friend who excels in it. Mentorship is only one of the mechanisms that will change us, we will adopt the culture of our friends in many different ways. I cannot overestimate the importance of choosing the right friends.

We think differently

Different people think differently. It does not matter how we divide the classify the way we think in groups of nine or sixteen or some other way. We will always be better than most of our friends in some form of thinking, and worse in another. I address this idea in many posts. Some people are aware of their own psyche, while others are more aware of the people around them. Some people will enjoy the music of the language, while others will love its mathematical accuracy. Some people will acutely feel their body and the space around them, while others will enjoy abstract reasoning. The list is infinite.

When someone presents us a strategy we should not take it as-is, but instead, adapt it to the way we think. If the original strategy utilizes something we are weak in, we should try to see how it can be applied to something we do quite easily. This is not always trivial. If a person does not want to visualize, it is best to change the form of visualization rather than replacing visualization with something else. However, forcing ourselves to walk mental palace when we suffer from vertigo might be not the optimal strategy: try mind maps instead.

Thinking of ourselves as smart or stupid, weak or strong is over-simplistic. There are many forms of intelligence and many kinds of sports. We will always be more adapt to some than the others. Even if we have a talent to something, we do need to practice it to get really good at it. If we dismiss our own abilities, we will not have a proper chance to practice.

Personally, I always felt cheated when people more stupid than me succeeded and I felt. Eventually, I understood that they typically succeeded using different types of intelligence, the types where they were better than me.

Everything can become an art

We tend to dismiss the activities we do not understand as inferior or boring. In fact, everything can become an art in the right hands. We can take something as boring and numbers, and turn it into breathtaking art. If you do not believe me, look for fractals on youtube. Transforming our daily activities into a form of art, and taking joy in activities done well by other people is a great skill to have.

My father is very skilled at taking something very mundane and turning it into an artform. He was a chemical engineer, working with dark and smelly substances. I visited his place of work several times, and it never struck me as pleasant. Yet, he could talk endlessly about his job. In his stories, he was like an alchemist searching for some secret, or a magician doing something nobody could understand. He had two favorite stories. One was of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence and the other was a dirty medical joke. Both stories took something very mundane and possibly unpleasant and transformed them into a learning experience and a sort of an art form.

So whenever reading a boring book or doing a boring chore, it makes sense to ask yourself: what kind of art is this and what would Tom Sawyer do in this situation.

Test yourself

A diary of the things we believe about ourselves is a good way to test yourself. You may want to write the things you believe in right now, and check if they still hold a week, a month, a year later. Some people write down their dreams or meditate.

There are pseudo-scientific ways to check the sort of thinking you have. For example, you can fill in Mayers-Briggs indicator or the 9 types of intelligence quiz.

Choose whatever works for you. Sun Tzu used to say “You have to believe in yourself.” and “Know yourself and you will win all battles.”

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