The problem with cognitive biases

I have already talked about how our minds make use of heuristics to solve problems when faced with cognitive limitations. These heuristics are shortcuts that are bound to be wrong sometimes. The 1970s marked the beginning of the heuristic and biases tradition which took over the study of human decision-making processes.

Currently, cognitive biases are being questioned by many researchers. Some believe they are a vague, overrated concept that unfairly dominates the field of reasoning studies. In order to explain this position, I will take a look at the confirmation bias today.

Confirmation bias

The notion of confirmation bias is simple to understand. In 1960, cognitive psychologist P.C. Wason coined the term [1]. He used it to describe how when we search for information we tend to favor the one that confirms our preconceptions, hypotheses or personal beliefs. It is also known as myside bias and affects inductive reasoning (the type of reasoning in which the premises would lead to a probable solution, not a certain one).

The concept of confirmation bias has expanded and is supposed to affect not only to the task of information search but also to interpretation and recalling. In fact, confirmation bias has become an umbrella term that covers any instance in which beliefs or preconceptions influence information processing.


Confirmation bias is seemingly unrelated to intelligence [2][3] and has been theorized that confidence levels might be at play. Individuals with low confidence levels might tend to avoid information that contradicts their beliefs while those with higher confidence levels tend to seek out antagonistic opinions to form their arguments.

Examples of confirmation bias

Considering the preceding definition, the instances in which we incur this cognitive bias are endless. From politics to the belief in pseudoscience, to rushed medical diagnosis, to police investigations, to almost any everyday social interaction; confirmation bias could be affecting us constantly.

It is quite common to disregard any evidence that doesn’t sustain our political point of view by saying that it is flawed or inaccurate. It is just as common that scientific innovations or rare experimental results are heavily criticized by the scientific community.

Someone who believes in paranormal psychic activity is predisposed to remember vividly every time that event A was followed by event B. This same person will ignore or even forget all those instances in which event A wasn’t followed by event B.

We can find countless accounts of myside bias. But the question is, are they the result of a systematic cognitive bias that affects human reasoning equally or is it something else?

The problem with cognitive biases

As I said before, cognitive biases are not universal. They are dependent on individual differences – intelligence, previous training or certain personality traits. Training to solve experimental tasks used in cognitive bias studies as well as simply knowing about the existence of cognitive biases makes us less likely to fall prey to them.

Moreover, most studies that support their existence feature highly subjective tasks. In the case of confirmation bias, for instance, there is little evidence that it affects estimations of numerical results. This is the reason why I think we should be using the concept of motivated reasoning instead of confirmation bias.

I think it is problematic that the effect of cognitive biases cannot be identified across a wide range of contexts, seems to be task-specific as well as restricted to some people. As a result, we cannot affirm that cognitive biases are systematic patterns of irrationality that govern human judgment.

[1] Wason, P. C. (1960). On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task. Quarterly
Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12, 129–140.
[2] Stanovich, K.E. & West, R.F. (2007). Natural Myside Bias is Independent of Cognitive Ability. Thinking and Reasoning, 13 (3), 225-247.
[3] Stanovich, K.E.; West, R.F.; & Toplak, M.E. (2013). Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence. Association for Psychological Science, 22 (4), 259-264.

Recommended reading:
What Does It Mean to be Biased: Motivated Reasoning and Rationality by Ulrike Hahn and Adam J.L. Harris.


The Psychology of Emotions

Emotions are, alongside personality, the psychology topic, we more often refer to in our daily lives. We talk about how we feel -or felt- in a certain situation and how those emotions influence our conduct and choices.

Experimental research in the field of psychology and neuroscience has provided us with a deeper understanding of emotions and how they affect us. The general agreement among researchers is that there are six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. They are considered our basic (or primary) emotions because they seem to be present cross-culturally. Another important feature of basic emotions is that each of them is associated with a specific pattern of physiological activity and facial expression.

It seems obvious that we experience a wider range of emotions than those basic ones. Complex or secondary emotions -like annoyance or envy- are made up of basic emotions and probably came about, and stayed with us, by way of cultural conditioning and association.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik proposes a model with eight primary and contrasting emotions.
The function of emotions

Emotion is undoubtedly a defining aspect of humans and animals, and a factor that (still) differentiate us from machines. Emotions also have a profound effect on our thoughts and actions which can lead to both a positive and negative outcomes.

So, apart from making us what we are, do emotions serve us a purpose? Yes, they do. Emotions have an important adaptive role as they get us ready for action when it’s most needed. A good example of this would be fear. We experience fear when we perceive a danger or imminent threat. In this case, the flight-or-fight response is triggered making us more alert, shifting our attention to negative stimuli and preparing the body -increased muscle tension, blood flow- to fight or escape.

However, a lengthy state of fear will have negative consequences. If a person is worried about losing their job and experiences it with fear and intense anxiety, the emotional response will probably be prolonged in time. Such person won’t be able to focus on their daily tasks and will have trouble sleeping at night because of this emotional activation.

Emotional biases

Emotional states can cause cognitive and memory biases. A clear example is how anger clouds our judgment and keeps us from making rational decisions. When it comes to processing information, we prioritize the emotionally-charged stimuli over neutral ones. Emotions can also alter the content of our memories as well as how or when a memory is recalled. Memories consistent with our current emotional state are more easily accessible.

The effect of emotional states on cognition and memory is a broad field of research. It is also of vital importance to clinical psychologists as it helps us understand how the minds of those battling anxiety or depression work.

Human emotion is fundamental to the study and treatment of mental disorders as well as to the understanding of human cognition and behavior.

It’s not me: it’s them!

If I ask you “Why do you think you haven’t gotten a promotion?” or “Why do you think you did well in school?”, you might say “Because my boss doesn’t like me” or “Because I got a lot of help from my parents”. Someone else might answer “I haven’t gotten a promotion because I’m not ready for one yet” or “I worked really hard for my grades”. The truth is that the real causes of these events are probably complex and varied but we all have a particular way of thinking about them. We all have an attributional style. And they way we think about them has an impact on our behavior and self-esteem.

Attributional or explanatory style refers to the way in which we evaluate and explain events in our lives. It consists of three dimensions: locus of control, stability, and scope.

The locus of control is probably the most talked-about element of this theory. Locus is Latin for ‘place’ or ‘location’ and locus of control refers to where we think the control over the outcomes of our life lies. People with a strong internal locus of control will believe that their life events are the result of their own actions and choices exclusively. Contrariwise, a person with a strong external locus of control will think that external factors (the doing of others, their environment or plain luck) are in charge of the outcomes of their life. Just like personality dimensions, the locus of control is not an “either/or” typology, we all fall somewhere along a continuum of internal/external attribution.

The stability dimension refers to whether someone believes that the cause of outcome is stable or unstable. For example, luck is usually seen as unstable while ability or intelligence will be considered stable.

The last dimension -that I chose to call scope– refers to whether the explanation that the subject gives to an event is generalized to other events or only applies to the event at hand. For example, a person might think they only have luck with relationships but not with money.



The ‘optimal’ attributional style

At this point, you might be wondering: what would the optimal attributional style be? The answer is not so easy but let’s take a look at these two ‘extremes’:


The pessimist believes that failures are their own doing as well as stable and generalized to all possible events. Their successes are however external -nothing to do with them- unstable and specific to certain events. A pessimistic attributional style seems to correlate with depression and physical illness.

The optimist considers their failures are due to external causes that are (luckily!) unstable and specific to some events. Their successes are due to an internal factor -their own choice or their own behavior- that is also stable and generalizable to any event.

Effects of attributional styles

There has been extensive research about the effects of attributional styles on academic performance, health-related behaviors, and job performance. In general, students with an internal attributional style seem to perform better academically. Students with an external attributional style tend to receive lower grades, as they believe there is nothing they can do to do better in school.

There also seems to be a link between an internal locus of control and preventive health behaviors like exercise, breast self-examination, and weight control. People who believe they are in control of their own health, are more inclined to take up healthy habits than those who don’t.

Try to understand your own locus of control by taking this quiz.

Interesting reads:
Oettingen, G. (1995). Explanatory style in the context of culture
Tam Shui Kee Tony (2003) Locus of control, attributional style and discipline problems in secondary schools

How does base rate bias work?

Cognitive biases are a very popular Psychology topic. I find them especially interesting because, in many cases, knowing about them and correctly identifying when we use them, can help us think more rationally and make better decisions.

Today I wanted to write about a type of bias that we often find in debates or opinionated conversations; the base rate bias or base rate fallacy.

The base rate bias occurs when base rate information is ignored and specific information -information relating to a certain case- is favored to make a judgment or reach a conclusion. Base rate information refers to the base probability of an event -also known as prior probability.

The base rate bias occurs when base rate information is ignored and specific information -information relating to a certain case- is favored to make a judgment or reach a conclusion. Base rate information refers to the base probability of an event -also known as prior probability.

I already talked about heuristics and cognitive biases and about how we still lack a coherent classification for them. Daniel Kahneman [1] considers base rate bias a specific form of extension neglect. Extension neglect occurs when the size of a set that is relevant to its valuation is disregarded.

The best way to understand this concept is by going over a couple of examples. The first one is a classic one and has been replicated many times with similar results. A group of participants is given the description of a fictional university student chosen at random. Consider Tom’s description:

“Tom is of high intelligence, although lacking in true creativity. He has a need for order and clarity, and for neat and tidy systems in which every detail finds its appropriate place. His writing is rather dull and mechanical. He has a strong drive for competence. He seems to have little feel and little sympathy for other people and does not enjoy interacting with others.” [2]

When asked about what program is Tom most likely to be attending, most people would reply ‘computational science’ or any other engineering program when, in fact, business and social science students are larger in number.

If Tom was chosen at random, he is more likely to be attending one of the most popular studies. Most people ignore this base rate information and reach a conclusion based on the fact that personality types like Tom seem more abundant in computational science programs.

Base rate bias and diagnosis


Another example that is often discussed is the base rate fallacy in diagnosis or assessing probabilities. Let’s assume that a certain disease manifests in 1 out of 1000 people, that means that a person has 0.10% chance of having that disease. There is a medical test that identifies 99% of positive cases when used on a sample of people who have the disease. That means that only 1% of positive cases are not diagnosed. Similarly, the test clears 99% of patients who do not have the disease and mistakenly diagnosis 1% of healthy individuals (false positive).

What is the probability of having the disease if the result of the test comes back positive? Not only patients but also most doctors would struggle to give a correct answer.

Making use of Bayesian statistics we can calculate the conditional probability:

p(disease | positive result) = p(disease) * p(positive result | disease) / p(positive result)

p(disease | positive result) = 0.001 * 0.99 / 0.001 * 0.99 + (1-0.001)*0.01 = 0.090 … 9%

This means that the probability of having the disease it is still 9% even with a positive result on the test. The reason being that the disease is very rare and only 0.10% of the population will have it.

Without making these calculations and considering the 99% of correct diagnosis, it is easy to think that the probability of being sick is much higher. This is why it is important to keep in mind the base rate information.


[1] Economic Preferences or Attitude Expressions?: An Analysis of Dollar Responses to Public Issues
[2] Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A.E. 1982. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press.



Introduction to Personality disorders

After my last entry on personality and the five-factor model, I wanted to start a series discussing personality disorders. Personality is defined as the characteristic way in which an individual thinks and behaves. When these patterns of thought and behavior are problematic and cause a big deal of anxiety and hindrance, we can consider a personality disorder.

There are ten, well-defined personality disorders. Personality disorders are usually classified into three clusters: cluster A – the odd, cluster B – the dramatic and cluster C – the anxious. The DSM-IV-TR also considers the possibility of personality disorders that don’t fit the diagnostic criteria of any of these. It is important to note that some personality disorders have a high comorbidity with each other. In other words, some individuals might meet diagnostic criteria for more than one personality disorder.

Since this is quite a broad topic, today I will only do a recap of the ten personality disorders. I will discuss them, one by one, in the following posts. This time I plan on doing something different. I will describe someone’s case instead of presenting the diagnostic criteria and general knowledge we have. I think it is a better way to paint a realistic and comprehensible portrayal of these disorders.

But first, a quick summary that will serve as a guide:



Understanding the Big Five

If you are into Psychology, you might already have heard about the Big Five. The Big Five model attempts to classify personality traits into five dimensions; openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Psychologists have been trying to create a comprehensive classification of human personality for decades. The five-factor model, also known as Big Five is the prevailing personality model nowadays. Before I discuss the model and the five factors I’d like to explain how it came about.

the big five

Personality psychology studies the individual differences in our characteristic patterns of thinking and behaving. The notion of personality should not be confused with a set of behaviors or emotional states. Personality is a concept, a perception that results from the fact that individuals have different identities and different personality traits. Personality is a construct that is inferred from our actions and feelings.

We find the origins of most personality models in the lexical hypothesis. The lexical hypothesis or lexical approach states that the most important personality characteristics will eventually become a part of people’s language. It also states that these very important personality traits are likely to be encoded into a language as a single word.

Decades of research and psycholexical classification produced lists with thousands of terms that would later get classified into smaller categories. Making use of factor analysis [1], these terms were finally grouped into five dimensions. These five factors are the Big Five.

Conscientiousness: this dimension refers to our ability to be organized and to show self-discipline. To be able to work dutifully towards our goals.

Agreeableness: a tendency to be in a good disposition for social interaction. A natural inclination to be compassionate and empathic rather than antagonistic or combative.

Neuroticism: this dimension refers to our emotional adjustment. How often and how deeply we let unpleasant emotions overtake us.

Openness to experience: this dimension refers to the search and appreciation for new experiences. It shows a degree of curiosity and interest. A preference for novelty.

Extraversion: it refers to the amount and intensity of interpersonal interaction we enjoy. How social and outgoing a person is.

These are the big five categories of personality. It is important to note that these dimensions exist on a continuum rather than being a discrete attribute that a person does or does not have. For each trait, we are all situated somewhere along their continuum – from low to high.

I hope you enjoyed my explanation of the conception of the five factors model. I plan on writing in more in detail about each dimension soon.


[1] Factor analysis: a statistical technique that describes the variability of observed, correlated variables. It looks for joint variations that could be the result of a latent variable or factor. Grouping together these variables helps to reduce the number of observed variables in a given dataset.

Is winter blues “a thing”?

Once the holiday season is over and we are faced with the beginning of a new year, it is common to feel down or generally unhappy. Daylight plunges, vacation days are scarce during Q1 and we are often confronted with the many demands of our New Year’s resolutions. It is no wonder we feel off and distressed. This feeling is very common and normal. Today I’d like to write about how this temporary state of general unhappiness differs from a full-fledged mood disorder also known as Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or Seasonal Depression.

winter blues
Source: 9gag


The psychopathology of seasonal depression

Seasonal affective disorder, first described in 1984 by Norman E. Rosenthal, has been considered both a unique mood disorder and a modifier -or specifier- of a recurrent depressive disorder that occurs with a seasonal pattern. In short, there are two lines of thinking about seasonal depression; those who consider it an independent disorder and those who prefer to think of it as a modifier -a special characteristic- of a major depressive disorder.

The proponents of SAD as a unique entity, support their claims with biological studies. Patients affected by a depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, have problems processing visual light, usually, develop their symptoms when adequate light is not present and respond favorably to light therapy.

Those who prefer the SAD to remain as a major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, claim that patients diagnosed with winter depression suffer recurrent episodes of major depression. Their symptoms seem to increase during the fall and winter and decrease with the coming of spring and summer.

Diagnosis of a depressive disorder

At this point, I would like to talk about the criteria for the diagnosis of a depressive disorder. The DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) indicates that 5 or more of the following symptoms need to have been present during a same 2-week period. At least one of the symptoms has to be number 1 or 2.

  1. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day (self-reported or observation made by others).
  2. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the
    day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation).
  3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than
    5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
  4. Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day.
  5. Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not
    merely subjective feelings of restlessness).
  6. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
  8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
  9. Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.

These symptoms cannot be attributed to another medical condition and cause significant stress as well as social and occupational impairment. If in the last 2-year period, two episodes of major depression have occurred and remitted in specific times of the year, we can speak about seasonal depression.

As you can see, the actual diagnosis of winter depression, it’s more complex than what many articles written these days would lead you to believe. I encourage anyone who recognizes the preceding symptoms in themselves to seek professional help. If you are just feeling down or overwhelmed these days, I will offer some tips about how to overcome the winter blues in my next post.

Article about seasonal disorders

(This post was originally published on on January 10th, 2017)