Debiasing: How to Reduce Cognitive Biases in Yourself and in Others

Cognitive Debiasing

 

Debiasing is a process through which the influence of cognitive biases is reduced, generally with the goal of helping people think in a more rational and optimal manner.

Debiasing is usually accomplished through the use of various debiasing techniques, that can work on any number and type of cognitive biases. For example, when it comes to reducing cognitive biases that revolve our tendency to underestimate how different other people’s views are from our own, one useful debiasing technique is to visualize how a certain situation looks from someone else’s perspective.

Because the influence of cognitive biases is pervasive, and can cause people to think and act in an irrational manner, it’s important to be able to engage in proper debiasing. As such, in the following article you will learn more about cognitive debiasing, understand how it works, and see how you can debias both yourself and others.

 

Brief introduction to cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality, which occur due to the way our cognitive system works. Accordingly, cognitive biases cause us to be irrational in the way we search for, evaluate, interpret, judge, use, and remember information, as well as in the way we make decisions, and they affect every person to some degree, including professional psychologists.

The following are examples of some specific ways cognitive biases can affect us:

  • Cognitive biases can affect how we form impressions of other people. For example, the halo effect is a cognitive bias that causes our impression of someone or something in one domain to influence our impression of them in other domains. This bias can cause us to assume that a person is knowledgeable and has an interesting personality, simply because they are physically attractive.
  • Cognitive biases can affect how we acquire information. For example, the ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to avoid information that they perceive as potentially unpleasant. This bias can cause us to avoid going to the doctor, if we believe that the doctor will have bad news for us, that we don’t want to deal with.
  • Cognitive biases can affect how we predict what the future will look like. For example, the pessimism bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to overestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen. This bias can cause us to assume that we are going to do badly on an exam, even if we prepared for it and it’s likely that we will actually do well.

Note: this article focuses on the topic of debiasing, and as such it doesn’t include an in-depth discussion about what cognitive biases are and why experience them. If you want to learn more about this, and about related topics such as bounded rationality, satisficing, and heuristics, read the relevant article on the topic, or some of the notable books on the topic, such as “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, “Predictably Irrational“, and “The Art of Thinking Clearly“.

 

Does cognitive debiasing work?

Research shows that cognitive debiasing works in some cases, meaning that the use of appropriate training, interventions, and debiasing techniques can reduce some cognitive biases, to some degree, in some situations. For example, one study on the topic found that even a single training session, in the form of playing an instructional computer game or watching an educational video, improved people’s ability to reduce various cognitive biases in the long term, months after the training.

However, while debiasing can sometimes be effective, there is substantial variability in its effectiveness, and in some situations it doesn’t work at all. For example, one study examined people’s optimism bias, when it comes to believing that one’s own risk of suffering from health issues is lower than that of others. Despite attempts to correct this bias, the researchers found that people’s optimism bias persisted in the face of various debiasing interventions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that this bias can’t be mitigated at all, and it’s possible that different debiasing techniques than those that were examined in the study could have worked. However, the failure of these interventions to debias the participants in the study demonstrates that debiasing isn’t always a straightforward process, and shows that finding the appropriate debiasing approach to use in a certain situation can be a difficult process.

Overall, research shows that cognitive debiasing works in some cases, meaning that the use of appropriate training, interventions, and debiasing techniques can reduce some cognitive biases, to some degree, in some situations. However, there is substantial variability in the effectiveness of debiasing, and a debiasing approach that works well in one situation might fail in another.

Note: cognitive debiasing is sometimes also referred to using other terms, such as cognitive bias mitigation, cognitive bias reduction, and cognitive bias inoculation.

 

How to debias: the debiasing process

Effective cognitive debiasing generally occurs through a process, rather than a single event. In general, this debiasing process involves the following stages:

  1. Awareness. Become aware that a certain bias might be triggered or has been triggered already.
  2. Decision. Decide to take action to reduce the bias.
  3. Analysis. Figure out when, where, why, and how the bias in question is likely to occur.
  4. Planning. Based on the information from the analysis stage, identify the optimal debiasing approach to use, and figure out how exactly it will be implemented.
  5. Action. Implement the planned debiasing approach.

Furthermore, you can add an additional assessment step at the end, and assess the situation after taking action, in order to determine the effectiveness of the debiasing, and figure out whether any modifications should be made. If necessary, this can be followed by further analysis and planning, which will make future debiasing attempts more effective.

For example, consider a situation where you might experience the fundamental attribution error, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to underestimate the influence of environment-based situational factors on people’s behavior, and to overestimate the influence of personality-based dispositional factors. Essentially, this bias can cause you to assume that other people’s actions are less affected by their environment than they actually are, and to assume that those actions are more affected by their personality than they actually are.

When it comes to debiasing the fundamental attribution error, you should first because aware of this bias and of the possibility that you might experience it, and then decide to take action in order to reduce it.

Once you’ve done this, you should analyze the situation in order to better understand this bias, in terms of factors such as when and how it’s likely to affect you. It might be the case, for instance, that you’re likely to experience this bias during your commute to work, toward other people that you encounter along the way, because you tend to judge their actions even though you don’t know much about them.

Then, you should plan how you’re doing to reduce this bias. For instance, you might decide that each time you feel yourself about to judge someone, you’ll remind yourself you can’t know for sure why they’re acting the way that they’re acting; if they look upset, for example, it might be the case that they’re just having a bad day, and they’re not an angry person in general.

Finally, you should act on this plan, and implement it in reality. Over time, you can further assess how well it works, and figure out whether there are any modifications that you should make. For instance, you might find that in some cases, a single debiasing technique isn’t enough, and you need to use an additional one, such as reminding yourself that other people might also be judging your actions inappropriately, despite knowing nothing about you.

Overall, to debias successfully, you should generally engage in a proper debiasing process. This involves being aware that a certain bias might be triggered or has been triggered already, deciding to take action to reduce the bias, analyzing the situation to figure out when, where, why, and how the bias in question is likely to occur, planning how to address this bias, and taking action, by implementing your planned debiasing approach. You can follow this up by also assessing the situation after taking action, in order to determine the effectiveness of your debiasing, and figure out whether any modifications should be made. to make future debiasing attempts more effective.

 

Levels of debiasing ability

The following scheme is sometimes used to categorize the different levels of understanding that people can have when it comes to debiasing:

  • Universal. This involves understanding the basic cognitive mechanisms that cause cognitive biases and the basic principles behind cognitive debiasing, as well as knowing some general debiasing techniques that can be applied in the majority of cases.
  • Generic. This involves becoming familiar with the general types of cognitive biases that exist, understanding where you might encounter them, and knowing which cognitive debiasing strategies can be effective for dealing with them.
  • Specific. This involves becoming familiar with specific cognitive biases, predicting where you are going to experience them, and knowing how to apply the relevant debiasing strategies in each case

 

Debiasing techniques

A debiasing technique is a technique intended to reduce cognitive biases in someone. For example, one common debiasing technique is to simply make people aware of a certain bias, and explain to them when and how they’re likely to experience it.

People often apply debiasing techniques themselves, but they can also help other people do so. Debiasing techniques can appear in many different forms, and they often revolve around the concept of metacognition, which involves awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process.

In addition, because cognitive biases are often explained through various models situated under dual-process theory, debiasing techniques are sometimes explained through this theoretical framework. Specifically, this framework generally suggests that we use two main types of cognitive systems:

  • System 1, which is responsible for our intuitive processing, and which is relatively fast, automatic, effortless, and strongly influenced by emotions.
  • System 2, which is responsible for our conscious reasoning, and which is relatively slow, controlled, effortful, and detached from emotional considerations.

Under this framework, cognitive biases occur for two main reasons:

  • System 1 generates a faulty intuitive judgment, and System 2 fails to correct it, either because System 2 fails to go into action and properly supervise System 1, or because System 2 goes into action but fails to properly inhibit System 1.
  • System 2 fails to engage in proper analytical reasoning.

Accordingly, debiasing generally involves one of the following:

  • Helping System 1 generate better intuitions. You can do this in various ways, such as by improving the environment where you form the intuitions.
  • Helping System 2 work better, in terms of supervising and inhibiting System 1, and in terms of conducting a proper reasoning process. You can do this in various ways, such as by slowing down your reasoning process.

Next, we will see an overview of the various types of debiasing techniques that exist, followed by a list of common debiasing techniques.

Note: debiasing techniques are sometimes referred to using other terms, such as cognitive debiasing techniques, cognitive strategies, debiasing strategies, and cognitive forcing strategies.

 

Types of debiasing techniques

The different types of debiasing techniques can be categorized in various ways. One notable distinction is between debiasing techniques that attempt to influence decision-makers directly, and those that attempt to modify the decision-making environment, in order to influence decision-makers indirectly.

For example, consider a situation where you’re attempting to debias the bandwagon effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to think or act in a certain way, because they believe that others are doing the same. In this case, a debiasing technique that involves influencing the decision-maker directly could involve telling them to consider alternative options beyond those that are being promoted by others. Conversely, a debiasing technique that modifies the environment could involve placing the person who is being debiased in a place where they’re not exposed to other people’s opinions during the decision-making process.

Another distinction that can be drawn between the different types of debiasing techniques revolves around specificity, in terms of whether a given technique is effective for reducing a wide range of cognitive biases or only a limited number of them. In this regard, it is possible to categorize debiasing techniques into groups based on whether they are universal, which means that they work on most cognitive biases, generic, which means that they work on substantial groups of cognitive biases, or specialized, which means that they work only on a small number of biases.

In addition, debiasing techniques may be categorized based on other factors. For example, they can be categorized based on required training and skill level, with certain techniques being easy enough to be implemented by everyone, and with others requiring extensive training. Similarly, they can be categorized based on cost, with some techniques requiring little-to-no cost, in terms of factors such as time, money, and effort, and with others being more expensive.

Finally, other distinctions can also be drawn between the different types of debiasing techniques. For example, it’s possible to differentiate between debiasing techniques that are intended to produce a specific outcome as a result of bias reduction, compared to those that are aimed to reduce bias in general but could lead to a variety of outcomes.

Overall, many types of debiasing techniques exist, and can be categorized based on various distinctions. This includes debiasing techniques that influence decision-makers directly compared to those that influence the decision-making environment, techniques that debias a large number of biases compared to those that debias only a small number of them, and techniques that require substantial training compared to those that do not.

 

List of debiasing techniques

Below is a list of effective debiasing techniques you can use. The focus here is on relatively general debiasing techniques, that can be helpful when it comes to a large range of cognitive biases.

In addition, there are also some more specialized debiasing techniques listed here, that are meant to be used on a narrower range of biases. The advantage of such techniques is that even though they are applicable in fewer cases, they can sometimes be more effective than generalized debiasing strategies.

Note that many of these techniques are interrelated, since the underlying principles behind them are similar, and since some of them have important implications that should be taken into account during the implementation of other techniques.

 

Develop awareness of the bias

In some cases, simply being aware of a cognitive bias can reduce its impact.

For example, consider the illusion of transparency, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their thoughts and emotions are more apparent to others than is actually the case. This bias means that people tend to think that others can tell if they’re feeling nervous or anxious, even in situations where that’s not the case.

In one study on the illusion of transparency, researchers found that people who were informed of this bias before giving a public talk appeared more composed and gave a better talk than those who were not told about it. They were informed of this bias using the following simple text:

“It might help you to know that research has found that audiences can’t pick up on your anxiety as well as you might expect. Psychologists have documented what is called an ‘illusion of transparency.’ Those speaking feel that their nervousness is transparent, but in reality their feelings are not so apparent to observers.

This happens because our own emotional experience can be so strong, we are sure our emotions ‘leak out.’ In fact, observers aren’t as good at picking up on a speaker’s emotional state as we tend to expect.

So, while you might be so nervous you’re convinced that everyone can tell how nervous you are, in reality that’s very rarely the case. What’s inside of you typically manifests itself too subtly to be detected by others.

With this in mind, you should just relax and try to do your best. Know that if you become nervous, you’ll probably be the only one to know.”

— From “The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety” (by Savitsky & Gilovich, 2003)

This demonstrates how in some cases, simply making someone aware of a certain cognitive bias can help them reduce this bias successfully. Furthermore, even in cases where awareness of a bias doesn’t reduce it directly, it can still help the person who is being debiased understand what the issue is, and why debiasing is important in this case.

 

Improve the way information is presented

The way you present information can affect the way people process it, and the same information, presented in two different ways to the same person, can lead to two very different outcomes. Accordingly, by modifying the way you present information to people, you can reduce certain cognitive biases.

For example, one study examined people’s tendency to rely on anecdotal information over statistical data when it comes to deciding which medical procedure they should undergo. Modifying the way the statistical information was presented, by providing it using an easy-to-understand graph instead of a numerical description, reduced the patients’ reliance on inaccurate anecdotal information, and prompted them to make a more rational decision.

The exact way in which this debiasing technique should be implemented depends on factors such as the person you’re trying to debias and the specific cognitive bias you’re trying to reduce. However, the overall concept is the same: because the way you present information has a crucial impact on the way people process it, you should present information in an optimal way, that encourages people to engage in a proper reasoning process.

 

Use simpler explanations and solutions

When it comes to information-presentation in general and to debiasing in particular, simple explanations and solutions are often preferable to complex ones.

For example, consider the hindsight bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate how predictable a past event was, once they already know its outcome. In one study on the topic, people were told to think of ways in which a past event might have turned out differently, in an attempt to reduce this bias.

People who were told to list only 2 ways in which the event might have turned out differently felt that the task was easy, and ended up not suffering from the hindsight bias. Conversely, those who were told to list 10 ways in which the event might have turned out felt that the task was difficult, and experienced a significant hindsight bias.

Overall, when it comes to debiasing, simpler explanations and solutions are often preferable to complex ones. This concept can serve as a debiasing technique in itself, such as when you replace a complex and confusing explanation with a simpler one, and it can also be used to guide many debiasing techniques, such as those that involve thinking about alternative outcomes to events.

It’s important to note, however, that there are no clear guidelines regarding how simple an explanation or a solution should be, in order to reduce cognitive biases. This depends on various factors, such as the background and abilities of the person that you’re trying to debias, and their motivation for thinking rationally in that specific case.

Note: this debiasing technique is associated with the concept of parsimony, which is a guiding principle that suggests that all things being equal, you should prefer the simplest possible explanation for a phenomenon or the simplest possible solution to a problem. It is also associated with the overkill backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people who encounter a complex explanation to reject it in favor of a simpler alternative, and to sometimes also reinforce their belief in the simpler alternative.

 

Use nudges

A nudge is a simple modification that is made to an environment in order to alter people’s behavior in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or changing their incentives on a significant level.

Nudges can be useful when it comes to mitigating certain cognitive biases. For example, when it comes to reducing overconfidence that people might experience while in a dangerous location, it can help to nudge people by displaying a relevant reminder of the dangers involved.

In addition, nudges often involve a combination of other debiasing techniques. For example, when it comes to using a reminder to reduce overconfidence in a dangerous situation, the design of the reminder itself can take into account other debiasing techniques, such as increasing awareness of the bias in question, and using a simple explanation rather than a complex one.

Note: nudges are helpful in a variety of contexts besides debiasing. To learn more about them, you can read the dedicated article on the topic, or the highly acclaimed book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness“.

 

Change incentives

In some cases, changing people’s incentives can help mitigate the cognitive biases that they experience. There are two main ways to do this:

  • You can increase the benefits of non-biased thinking, for example by rewarding non-biased thinking with positive social feedback.
  • You can increase the penalties for biased thinking, for example by punishing biased thinking with negative social feedback.

Keep in mind, however, that changing people’s incentives doesn’t always work, and might even backfire in some cases, such as when people feel antagonized by the new incentives. As such, it’s important to be especially careful with implementing this technique, and to properly consider the circumstances beforehand.

 

Increase involvement

Increasing how involved people feel when it comes to their judgment and decision-making can reduce their cognitive biases in some cases. There are many ways in which you can increase people’s involvement; a notable one is to emphasize their role as active participants in their own reasoning process.

 

Increase accountability

When people know that they will be held accountable for their decisions and that their decisions will be scrutinized by others, they tend to put more effort into the decision-making process, which can mitigate certain cognitive biases.

 

Clearly verbalize beliefs

Asking people to clearly verbalize their beliefs can sometimes help reduce their biases.

For example, one study examined people’s opinions about federal welfare programs. In the study, the researchers discovered that when people opposed these programs due to preexisting misconceptions, presenting them with concrete facts that challenged these misconceptions did little to change their opinion. This means, for example, that telling these people what portion of the federal budget is allocated to welfare did not significantly affect their opinion on the topic, even if it showed them that this portion is much lower than what they assumed.

However, in a follow-up study, the researchers tried asking people to estimate the portion of the national budget that is allocated to welfare, and to state what portion of the budget they believed should be spent on welfare, before telling them what portion was spent on welfare in reality. For a lot of people, this meant that they were pushed to process the fact that not only is the federal-spending level lower than they thought, but it is also lower than what they thought it should be. Accordingly, they tended to suffer from a reduced bias, and were more likely to change their opinions in light of this information.

 

Make the reasoning process explicit

Making the entire reasoning process explicit, by clearly outlining things such as what evidence is available and how it supports the conclusion that was reached, can help reduce certain cognitive biases. This technique has various benefits, such as encouraging people to slow down their reasoning process, increasing their involvement in the process, and helping them identify any potential gaps in their reasoning.

 

Standardize the reasoning process

Deciding to make decisions in a standardized way can help ensure that you engage in a proper reasoning process. For example, the use of a simple mnemonic checklist was shown to help doctors apply important metacognitive strategies and make better decisions in a clinical context.

 

Slow down the reasoning process

Many cognitive biases can be mitigated by slowing down and taking the time to carefully think through the relevant information. This has a number of benefits, such as encouraging you to rely on proper analytical reasoning, and giving you sufficient time to reflect on your reasoning process as well as to engage in other types of useful thought patterns, such as considering alternative viewpoints.

One way of encouraging yourself or others to slow down the reasoning process is to establish relevant routines.

For example, consider a situation where you encounter a news article whose headline upsets you because it contradicts your beliefs. If you simply skim through the article after this, you will likely suffer from the confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that affects the way in which you search for and interpret information, and which, in this case, could cause you to dismiss the evidence in the article without really considering its content.

To reduce this bias, you can decide that when you encounter a news article that you disagree with, then instead of skimming it immediately you will first wait a couple of seconds, until your initial emotional tendency to reject the article has subsided, and then take the time read through it properly, rather than just skim it while looking for cherry-picked information in a biased manner.

 

Create favorable conditions for proper reasoning

Creating favorable conditions can improve people’s ability to engage in unbiased reasoning. You can achieve this by optimizing two types of conditions:

  • Internal conditions. For example, if you’re sleep-deprived, which interferes with your ability to think clearly, you can decide to get enough sleep before making a decision.
  • External conditions. For example, if you’re in a place with a lot of noise, which interferes with your ability to think clearly, you can decide to go somewhere quiet before making a decision.

Note that you will often be unable to create conditions that are absolutely perfect. However, it can still be beneficial to improve conditions to some degree, since even small improvements can sometimes be substantial when it comes to reducing certain cognitive biases.

 

Elicit external feedback

Receiving feedback from other people can help reduce certain cognitive biases. This can be helpful, for example, when it comes to biases that influence people’s perception of themselves, such as the worse-than-average effect, which causes people to incorrectly believe that they are worse than others at performing certain difficult tasks.

In this context, eliciting feedback can involve anything from asking other people for their opinion on the situation, to asking them to look for flaws in your reasoning process.

However, when considering other people’s feedback, it’s important to remember that they are also prone to various cognitive biases. Therefore, while asking for feedback from others can sometimes help you debias, this feedback should only be viewed as another piece of information that you take into account. How important this information should be will depend on various factors, such as the cognitive biases that you’re trying to avoid, and the background of the person who’s providing the feedback.

 

Reduce reliance on subjective memory

Our memory of past events is subjective, malleable, and prone to various distortions. For example, there is the rosy retrospection bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember past events as being more positive than they were in reality.

One way to mitigate such issues is to reduce your reliance on your subjective memory, by using objective records in order to examine past events instead. Essentially, this means that when you need to make a decision based on your past experiences, instead of trying to recall those experiences yourself, you can analyze records of those events in order to get a clearer and less biased picture of the past.

This can work especially well if you prepare in advance, by maintaining records of things that you know you will struggle to remember later. While this isn’t something that you will likely do for every event that you experience, it is certainly possible to implement this in some specific cases, and the main advantage of this technique is that we are often better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.

For example, if you end a relationship with someone because it’s highly negative, and you know that you might be tempted to return to this relationship in the future, then you could benefit from writing a reminder for yourself, where you outline all the reasons which caused you to end the relationship in the first place.

 

Consider alternatives

Considering alternatives, such as alternative explanations for a certain phenomenon or alternative interpretations for an event, can help reduce some cognitive biases.

For example, thinking about plausible alternative outcomes to past events can help you deal with some of the biases that distort your view of these events. One such bias is the choice-supportive bias, which causes people to retroactively ascribe more positive features and fewer negative features to an option that they chose. This bias can, for example, cause you to justify a purchase that you made by overemphasizing the positive aspects of the item that you decided to buy.

In this case, by considering alternative items that you could have purchased, you can potentially mitigate the choice-supportive bias. This can help you view your purchase in a clearer, more unbiased way, and therefore inform future decisions that you make.

Note that, when doing this, it is often preferable to focus on finding a small number of highly-plausible alternatives, rather than struggling to find a large number of them, which can be counterproductive and hinder your debiasing attempts. This was mentioned earlier, when discussing the benefits of using simpler explanations and solutions.

 

Create psychological self-distance

Self-distancing is the act of increasing the distance from your own egocentric perspective when assessing events and emotions that you experience. This can help you reduce cognitive biases in some cases.

For example, consider the spotlight effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which they are observed and noticed by others, as well as the degree to which others care about the things that they notice about them. This bias can, for example, cause people to overestimate the degree to which others are likely to notice their actions or appearance, meaning that it can cause people to assume that others are likely to notice it if they wear something embarrassing or say something stupid, even if that’s not the case.

We experience the spotlight effect because when we think about how other people see us, we tend to anchor their viewpoint to our own. Essentially, since we are so used to seeing things from our own perspective, we struggle to accurately judge how other people see us.

Accordingly, one way to reduce the impact of the spotlight effect is to create psychological self-distance when you think about how other people view you. This can involve, for example, trying to look at yourself from a perspective that is different from your own, such as from the perspective of the person that you are talking to, or from a general external perspective.

In addition, you can also create self-distance in other ways. One such way is to ask yourself what advice you would give to a friend, if they were in your situation. Another such way is to avoid using first-person language when asking yourself questions; this means, for example, that instead of asking yourself “what is bothering me about this situation?”, you should ask yourself “what is bothering you about this situation?”.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality, that cause us to be irrational in the way we search for, evaluate, interpret, judge, use, and remember information, as well as in the way we make decisions.
  • Debiasing is a process through which the influence of cognitive biases is reduced, generally with the goal of helping people think in a more rational and optimal manner.
  • You can use debiasing toward yourself or toward others, but you should keep in mind that the effectiveness of debiasing varies based on a large range of factors, such as the person that you’re trying to debias and the specific bias that you’re trying to reduce.
  • The debiasing process generally involves being aware that a certain bias might be triggered, deciding to act, analyzing the situation, planning what to do, and taking action; you can follow this up by assessing the situation, to find ways to improve future debiasing.
  • Debiasing generally involves the use of relevant debiasing techniques, such as slowing down the reasoning process and making it explicit, improving the way information is presented, considering alternatives, creating favorable conditions for proper reasoning, and creating psychological self-distance.