Cognitive Biases and Knowledge Innoculation

by Dan Walsh

Becoming aware does not create immunity.

I read a lot of behavioral psychology books. Mostly to further my marketing skill set, but also because I find the topic interesting. This study has clued me in to an interesting phenomenon. When someone studies chemistry they never feel immune to chemistry. But somehow when people study psychology they start to feel as if the lessons don’t apply to them anymore. I’ve seen this in others, and I’ve definitely noticed it in myself. Somehow the rules of human behavior stop affecting me because I know they exist. Of course, this isn’t the case. Authority, scarcity, social proof, loss – all of these can motivate me, even if I’m smarter than the “herd” and know they exist.

Every time I read a study or book, I think to myself “Wow, that’s interesting. Glad it doesn’t apply to me. Those poor suckers out there don’t know what hit ‘em.” To some extent this is true, but really it’s like saying I know how chickenpox spreads so there’s no way I’ll ever get it. This false security is so rich with fallacy that it should have it’s own book. It would probably be a best seller…

Call my agent!

I have recently identified two cognitive biases that I tend to be particularly vulnerable towards: recency and loss.

Recency

Especially when delivered by an authoritative source, like in a book, I tend to skew towards whatever knowledge I’ve most recently learned. I hate to admit it, but certain fad diets really latch into me. I have some background in biology, which helps keep the wacky cleanses and all-watermelon diets at bay, but I’m a sucker for diets with a science background. I started in college with the South Beach, then the Atkins, then Slow Carb, Paleo, and now Bulletproof. I’d like to chalk all of this up to my relentless pursuit of personal optimization, but maybe I’m just rationalizing.

To be fair, I do a lot of research and testing before I advocate a new eating style. I also realize that the sum total of science and our knowledge of nutrition continues to increase, so these progressively fine-tuned diets should in some ways carry more weight. Still, I get more excited about them when they’re new. If I can sense this psychological tendency in an area where I’m well informed, then I need to be on high alert when wading through areas where I’m not. Areas like investing, perhaps.

Loss

Loss is an interesting one for me. I wouldn’t say that I’m especially motivated by the threat of loss, “Buy now before this special ends!” but I definitely feel a heavy weight afterwards. Friends moving away, coworkers leaving, trading apartments, and even changing responsibilities at work affect me, I think, more than most. If a friend I barely know – an acquaintance – moves away I feel a sense of loss. If a lose a responsibility at work – even if it frees up time for better work – I feel a sense of loss. I don’t know of any instances where this has affected my decision making, but the emotional funk that follows a loss makes me think that it must have, at some point, had an impact on my choices.

It would be great if there was a game, a quiz, or something that could help me identify the biases that I’m, er, more biased towards.