Cognitive Bias: 20 Types and How to Avoid Them

As a content strategist it’s important that I think beyond how I write, or what I think is “normal”. It’s my job to hyper-analyze my own work, so as to catch my own unintentional biases. It can be a bit crazy making. Sometimes I feel like I’m just guessing! And how do I know where to start? Luckily, other smart people are creating lists of common types of cognitive bias.

One (incorrect) assumption I’ve made is that bias knowledge is new. It feels hard to list out biases because we’ve just begun. But that’s just wrong! In fact, it appears that as far back as 2015 Business Insider created a list of 20 types of cognitive bias that affect decisions. It’s a fantastic list, and I recommend any UX designer or content strategist familiarize themselves with it.

Business Insider’s List of 20 Types of Cognitive Bias

Business Insider lists out 20 types of cognitive biases. By learning them, I hope to be better at recognizing and removing them in my own work. Some are fairly well known, such as confirmation bias or survivorship bias. But several were new to me. Here are three that I found to be particularly interesting:

Availability Heuristic. The availability heuristic means weighing information you can easily access more heavily than information you need to seek out. I might subtitle this the “Anecdata” Heuristic, as it essentially means thinking of anecdotes as data. For example, it may be hard to remember that 200,000 people have died of Covid if you know a few people who have been asymptomatic and easily survived it.

Choice-Supportive Bias. While I hadn’t heard of this cognitive bias before, it makes perfect sense. Behavioral science teaches us that people are more likely to feel ownership of their actions if they choose the action. Combine that with confirmation bias (the instinct to confirm your opinion rather than challenge it), and it stands to reason that we become very attached to a choice we make.

Outcome Bias. While few people consciously prescribe to the Machiavellian theory “the end justifies the means”, it is much easier to look back on a terrible decision and justify it with how it turned out. For example, would you choose to miss the train to work? Of course not. But if you have a lovely walk, and your morning meeting ends up canceled, then in retrospect it seems like a good “decision”. This may unconsciously make you less worried about missing the train in the future (even though it is still a bad idea!).

Business Insider's List of 20 types of cognitive bias that screw up your decisions
Samantha Lee / Business Insider

How to Avoid Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases are a natural part of life. Our goal is simply to catch them, and not to let them impact out work (and thus the lives of others). With that in mind, here’s how to avoid cognitive bias:

  1. Learn what biases are. It’s hard to change, but it’s impossible if you don’t know what to look for.
  2. Listen to people who call you out. Even if they’re wrong, you’ll learn from others’ perceptions. (Also… they may not be wrong.)
  3. Practice. Correcting for cognitive bias is not a one-and-done. It’s a lifelong practice.

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