The brain loves short-cuts. I don’t blame it, so do I. If I’ve got a whole heap of research to do, I’ll skim the document until I find the relevant information. When the Olympics roll around, I like to see how the Aussies are faring. But I don’t have time to watch the whole thing — I just catch the highlights on the news. We use short-cuts because they’re more efficient — you achieve the outcome you wanted, but quicker!
A cognitive bias is basically the fancy term psychology gave to a brain short-cut. Our brain has a lot to do in any particular second, so if it can cut a corner or two, it will. Unfortunately, when we cut corners we miss out on details. Sometimes, that’s fine. I don’t really need to know how Johnny did in the long-jump. But we do so at a risk. When I skim a document, I might miss important information or nuanced details. What’s more, the type of filter I’m using (expectations and assumptions) will influence the information that catches my attention.
Sometimes there’s a cost.
Which can be a wonderful foundation for a misunderstanding, a surprise, or a world-ending mistake. In other words – an interesting plot! Have a read through some common cognitive biases we tend to make, and see if your character has taken these mental short-cuts. Alternatively, if you’re looking to amp up the conflict in a current scene, think about how a character may make one of these very-human errors:
The availability heuristic describes the brain’s tendency to judge the probability of an event by how quickly examples come to mind. We tend to use the availability heuristic when judging the frequency or probability of an event.
Example: Gareth is considering starting a Christmas in July ornaments business. He’s just been reading case studies of successful businesses so he’s feeling pretty confident that it’s going to take off.
P.S. A heuristic is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals…sound like anyone’s brain?
Choice Support Bias
The choice support bias, or post-purchase rationalisation, is the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to an option one has selected. After making a choice, the positive aspects tend to be remembered as part of the chosen option, and the negative aspects tend to be remembered as part of rejected options.
Example: Felicity is ecstatic when offered two different jobs. After much deliberation, she chooses the job with the higher pay, even though it’s further to travel.
Over the next few days she sits at her desk, mulling over her choice. She considers all the great aspects of her new job; the opportunities, the salary, the parking, the hot guy in HR. She remembers the other job offer; smaller desk, the cranky-looking boss, that off-putting ‘vibe’ she got. Yep, she definitely made the right choice.
I predict most of us have seen (and used) a confirmation bias. It’s our tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation biases tend to maintain stereotypes.
Example: Dr Orman has diagnosed Betty with a cold. The sore throat, the tiredness and general malaise all corroborate his conclusion. Betty collapses with Lyme disease three days later.
The ostrich effect (named after the widely held—albeit completely incorrect—belief that an ostrich will bury its head in the sand when faced with danger) is the tendency to ignore a dangerous or risky situation. People demonstrate this kind of behaviour by blotting out a problem from the mind instead of tackling the situation which threatens them.
Example: Skylar lives in a dystopian world after generations ignored the warning signs of global warming…
The placebo effect is one of the most well-known demonstrations of the power of the mind. Research has proven that by simply believing that something will have a certain effect on you causes it to have that effect.
Example: Maxine sneaks another mouthful from her pre-mixed vodka bottle—she needs the Dutch courage for the interview later today. She drives carefully, conscious that her reaction time is compromised, but is glad she did it when she speaks confidently. While she’s gone her husband tops up the lemon and lime mix (minus the vodka he drained weeks ago) and places the bottle back behind the cleaning supplies.
The recency effect predicts that we have a tendency to weight the latest information more heavily than older data. We also tend to assume that more recent information is of greater importance or significance.
Example: Don and Dan have been friends for years. One Sunday they have an argument about whether Dan is better at water polo or not. When Don is telling his girlfriend on Tuesday, his opinion of Dan is strongly weighed by the recent argument.
Cognitive biases are so ubiquitous that you could even use these mental assumptions for your own writerly gain. Your readers are just as vulnerable to making these short-cuts as your characters. Have them believing the brilliant choice Felicity made with her job, and they’ll be just as surprised as she is when they all turn out to be aliens.
What do you think? Have any of your characters fallen into one of these cognitive traps? Or could you see its use in creating some conflict for a character? Comments and feedback are a great way to get a conversation going. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,