Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that can cause us to view things outside of reality or logic. Learn what they are and how to recognize them.
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Issue #34

Cognitive Bias

This weekend I stepped through the Limiting Beliefs exercise in Rachel Gertz's article, Look at yourself. It was a great exercise to work through—prompted by a personal issue I was resolving, but applicable to so many other things. Limiting beliefs are personal beliefs that we tend to think of as universal truths. They're necessary to understand the world around us, but can all too frequently cause harm in our personal and professional lives if they go unexamined.

Cognitive biases are similar in that they can cause harm if unquestioned and unexamined throughout our lives, and are used to help us interpret the vast amount of information we receive from the world. However, cognitive biases are information-processing rules and sometimes behavioral/motivational beliefs—which can be more universally studied and applied to our actions and thought patterns. 

Cognitive biases are aplenty

You can peruse a massive, alphabetical list of cognitive biases and their meanings on Wikipedia here. There are some super interesting biases listed (looking at you, IKEA Effect and Hot-Hand Fallacy). In reality, not every bias is applicable or useful in every situation. But it's helpful to know of a few that impact our decisions, interactions, and communication more frequently than not: 
  • Choice-supportive bias: the tendency to retroactively self-justify our choices to be more informed than they were when they were made.
  • Empathy gap: the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in ourselves or others.
  • Planning fallacy: the tendency to underestimate task-completion times. (hello, estimate and scope issues!)
  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret, remember, and search for information in a way that reinforces our existing preconceptions.  

Cheat sheet

Since cognitive biases can affect our interactions with clients, teams, and our work, it's helpful to know when it's productive to see past these, and how exactly that can be done. By understanding our biases, we can self-check our thought processes more regularly—when working with our teams, making project decisions, or communicating in a difficult situation. This four-part cognitive bias cheat sheet helps us understand when exactly our brains kick into "cognitive bias mode", and the questions we can ask ourselves to recognize its origin.

The key? Recognizing when we're in situations where we're overloaded with information, we have a lack of meaning, we're required to act fast, or we need to remember information for later.

Good reads for the weekend:
  • Reflections on remote work: heavily quoting "Remote: Office Not Required" by 37signals, this blog post/book review is a great application of remote principles to real-life work situations.
  • Designing features using Job Stories: though this article is product management-focused, this focus on leveraging job implementations over team-created user stories is directly applicable to project work.
  • How to prioritize when everything is urgent: the Eisenhower Matrix + a series of questions to ask yourself when everything needs to be done right now.

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