Learning about ‘cognitive bias’ is the flavour of the month at the moment. It’s really just a fancy psychological way of explaining why nobody ever seems to ever act rationally.
Like toddlers, for example.
Except that cognitive bias persists throughout life… until you’re a 35-year-old woman insisting that you absolutely positively must knock down your house and rebuild it instead of extending it.
Mostly because you:
- keep seeing new and shiny houses built all around you (pro-innovation cognitive bias)
- saw a bunch of advertisements about how new and shiny houses really are the way to go (confirmation cognitive bias)
- believe that you’re a rational human being who always makes informed decisions and couldn’t possibly be swayed by any particular bias (blind-spot cognitive bias).
To help you understand cognitive bias – and avoid it where desirable – I’ve illustrated 12 cognitive biases that all parents suffer from at some point in the parenting life cycle.
Some biases are actually quite useful and work to your advantage. Others will make your head boil to the point of spontaneous combustion.
1. Anchoring bias
Problem: The first option we are presented with sets our expectations for what is ‘normal’.
Example: You ask your child: ‘What do you want for lunch?’. They reply ‘CHOCOLATE AND DONUTS’. Any attempt to negotiate down to a peanut butter sandwich is guaranteed to be unsuccessful.
Overcoming it: Tell your child: ‘You’re having a kale salad for lunch.’ The Vegemite sandwich and sliced apple which eventually appear will seem like a winning alternative.
2. Availability heuristic
Problem: We think the information that we already have is the most important.
Example: Your teenager thinks that getting a tattoo is a great idea and won’t hurt a bit because dreamy Charlie at school told her so and she doesn’t know anyone else with a tattoo.
Overcoming it: Increase her available information by driving her to your local nursing home and asking to speak to an octogenarian with multiple tattoos. The saggier the skin, the better.
3. Bandwagon effect
Problem: The more people who believe a thing is true, the more likely it is that others will believe it too.
Example: In 2014 millions of children around the world believed that loom bands were a fabulous idea. Mainly because millions of other children told them so.
Overcoming it: Often time will take care of this cognitive bias. As of March 2016, according to a reliable source (a friend of mine) local markets are begging customers to TAKE THE LEFTOVER LOOM BANDS. PLEASE GOD JUST TAKE THEM.
4. Blind-spot bias
Problem: You don’t think you have any biases.
Example: You think you made your own decision to install a state-of-the-art baby video monitor, even though your baby sleeps in the room next to you and the walls are so thin you can hear the baby fart.
Your choice had nothing to do with the fact that everyone in your mother’s group has a baby video monitor and implied that if you don’t get one too, your 6-week-old baby may suddenly leap out of the cot without your knowledge, unlock the door and run off with the nearest circus.
You made your own decision.
Overcoming it: You don’t need to overcome it. You have no biases. Right?
5. Choice-supportive bias
Problem: You believe it’s right because you chose it.
Example: You chose to have children, therefore your children are wonderful, parenting enriches your life and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even though you say it with a wild look in your twitching eye, speaking at full volume to drown out the baby screaming in the background while shaking a whining toddler off your leg and scratching at a stain on your top from yesterday – peanut butter or excrement? It’s hard to tell when it’s newborn poo.
Overcoming it: Associate only with parents of small children who will support your choice-supportive bias.
6. Clustering illusion
Problem: You tend to see patterns in random events.
Example: My baby has slept through for 2 nights in a row! This must mean they will sleep through every single night forever and ever now, even though they haven’t slept through a single night since they were born 9 months ago!
Overcoming it: Ask yourself – could there be another reason for this sudden change of events? Eg. Was it a fluke? Perhaps you inadvertently slipped extra phenergan into their evening bottle? Or did you forget to buy a video baby monitor and has your baby finally acted upon their lifelong desire to run off with a circus?
7. Confirmation bias
Problem: We only listen to people who tell us what we already believe.
Example: This recent conversation with my 3-year-old:
Him: We’re going to the playground!
Me: No, it’s raining. The playground is wet. We’re going to buy milk and bread.
Him: Yay! We’re going to buy milk and bread! Then we’re going to the playground!
Me: No, the playground will still be wet after we buy bread and milk. It’s practically a typhoon out there.
Him: Yay! We’re going to the playground after lunch when it will be dry!
Me: *through clenched teeth* WE ARE NOT GOING TO THE PLAYGROUND TODAY.
Overcoming it: Don’t ever take your child to a playground. Eventually they will stop expecting it.
8. Information bias
Problem: The more information we have, the harder it is to make a decision.
Example: This may seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me…
You attempt to choose a cot for your baby. Your mother offers you your grandmother’s cot. Government health authorities tell you old cots were painted with lead paint and may kill your child if they chew on the rails.
Your interior designer friend tells you the cot must match the change table and the chest of drawers or you won’t ever be able to feel happy and content in the nursery.
Choice offers a safe cot guide that tells you the exact measurements that are most likely to prevent your child from falling out of the cot, jamming their head between the slats or suffocating in the gap between the mattress and the cot.
Armed with a measuring tape, you head to your local baby superstore where the sales assistant explains in hushed tones that really, you must buy the latest in technological cots – the Cencio Intellicot – complete with an automatic rocker, air circulation, built-in lifting system, integrated video monitor and a polycarbonate window to keep baby safe and visible at all times.
Overcoming it: Listen to no-one. Go to your nearest reputable baby department store, purchase a nice-looking cot and take it home. They all have to meet mandatory Australian safety standards anyway.
9. Ostrich effect
Problem: You ignore bad news.
Example: As a parent of a ‘Terrible’ 2-year-old you believe that things can only improve from here, despite everything your parent friends (of older children) tell you.
Overcoming it: Listen to your friends when they tell you: threenagers are SO MUCH WORSE. Enjoy your Terrible Two. They may be prone to tantrums but they’ll soon add cunning and wile to their ever-growing list of ways to make your head explode.
10. Outcome bias
Problem: You tend to think that because something good happened, it will happen again if you repeat the action.
Example: Your 3-year-old believes that because he didn’t break his neck by riding his trike downstairs the first time, he will be able to happily repeat the feat again and again.
Overcoming it: Wrap your toddler in a straitjacket and bolt him to a wall until he turns 25 and develops a little bit of common sense.
11. Pro-innovation bias
Problem: You overestimate the usefulness of a product just because it’s new and shiny.
Example: The Intelligent Potty – a mini toilet for toddlers which plays personalised pre-recorded reward messages to the little tykes EVERY TIME THEY WEE IN IT.
Overcoming it: Ask yourself – how many bottles of wine you could buy for the $50 you’ll save by purchasing a regular (soundless) moulded piece of white plastic for your kid to wee in.
12. Placebo effect
Problem: Something has a positive effect simply because you believe it will.
Example: Mummy’s Magical All-Cure Cream – suitable for bumps, bruises, too-hot knees, prickly toes, hurted feelings and all other manner of minor ills, imaginary or otherwise. Also commonly referred to as ‘day cream’ or ‘moisturiser’.
Overcoming it: Try not to. One day they’ll get actual, real-life problems that can’t be cured by magical creams. It happens too soon.
Any of this sound familiar?
Want to know more about cognitive bias? Try this article from IFLS on 20 cognitive biases which make you form bad decisions.