Cognitive Bias

In a recent blog post, David Long, the President of Vitech and a Past President of INCOSE, discussed the useful technique drawn from the world of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) called “perceptual positions.” In addition to freeing our minds from self-limiting thought channels, this technique is particularly useful for ferreting out the effects of cognitive bias. These biases comprise a set of distortions to our conscious thought which are discussed in a clear and practical way in Richards Heuer’s 1999 book, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.

As Heuer points out, “Cognitive biases are similar to optical illusions in that the error remains compelling even when one is fully aware of its nature. Awareness of the bias, by itself, does not produce a more accurate perception. Cognitive biases, therefore, are, exceedingly difficult to overcome.” (Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Heuer, Richards J., (p. 112) Central Intelligence Agency, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1999.) While they are difficult to overcome even when identified, there is no hope of overcoming them when they are unseen.

This is most likely to occur when we look from our own perspective – what NLP calls the position of self. We tend to see our own thought processes as “normal” and “rational.” It is extremely difficult to pick up where we are being led astray by cognitive bias. The ability to see ourselves from the outside afforded by adopting other positions promotes the ability to spot cognitive bias at work. It is precisely the needed clarity in examining our thoughts and theories from different perspectives that results from the adoption of the five perceptual positions. It may still be hard to factor out the effects of cognitive bias, but seeing their presence and understanding their workings is a sound beginning.

We will not attempt a comprehensive discussion of all the possible cognitive biases lurking about in our minds. Heuer does an excellent job of that and every reader is commended to his work (available at no cost from the CIA) for a more complete treatment of the world of bias. Rather, we will set out to briefly illustrate the variety of biases possible and their insidious nature and operation in our minds.

We tend to be biased toward seeing patterns or causation where none exist. For example, in the first three months of 1611, William Shakespeare was 46 years of age. In that year the King James Bible was published. If one takes the King James Bible, turns to the 46th Psalm and begins counting the words (only the words of the Psalm itself – excluding the words of explanation/instruction), the 46th word is “shake.” By going then to the end of the Psalm and counting backwards, the 46th word is “spear.” Every one of us would have to admit to some slight trembling of desire to see something in that other than raw chance! But there is nothing. The point is that this desire for pattern also works in bigger, non-trivial and yet even subtler ways.

We also tend to assign values based on an available data point – a cognitive bias called “anchoring.” If someone asks the value of something, say the number of marbles in a pickle jar, and then supplies an anchoring point (e.g., by asking if the number is more or less than 100), the assigned values will tend to cluster around the suggested anchor. Often in negotiation, the technique of supplying an anchor is used to structure the outcome by capitalizing on the other party’s tendency to be subconsciously guided by the anchor.

Another common source of bias is our tendency to see what we expect to see – and fail to see what we do not expect. The most interesting facet of this bias is that we do not respond by explaining away observations that contradict our expectations. In fact, we actually fail to make such inconsistent observations at all. Told that they are examining a crime scene where a husband has stabbed his wife to death, student investigators will almost universally fail to catalog and report evidence that contradicts that theory and can often be induced to argue that the contrary evidence didn’t exist when they examined the scene.

By studying the existence and operation of cognitive bias, we can begin to watch for its occurrence in ourselves and others. This becomes even stronger when we combine the NLP positions with our knowledge of cognitive bias to set up a system of vigilance with the positions as lookout points from which we can spot bias. Coupling the five perceptual positions with the awareness of cognitive bias in our thinking process leads us to establish a solid foundation for improving our analysis and solution building. Even though mastering the psychology of these soft skills can be difficult, it clearly pays to take a leveraged systemic approach to the application of our thought processes.

Leave a Reply