Cognitive Beliefs and How They Thwart Us

The 12 Cognitive Biases that Prevent you From Being Rational
George Dvorsky

The human brain is capable of 1016 processes per second, which makes it far more powerful than any computer currently in existence. But that doesn't mean our brains don't have major limitations. The lowly calculator can do math thousands of times better than we can, and our memories are often less than useless — plus, we're subject to cognitive biases, those annoying glitches in our thinking that cause us to make questionable decisions and reach erroneous conclusions. Here are a dozen of the most common and pernicious cognitive biases that you need to know about.
Before we start, it's important to distinguish between cognitive biases and logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is an error in logical argumentation (e.g. ad hominem attacks, slippery slopes, circular arguments, appeal to force, etc.). A cognitive bias, on the other hand, is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking — a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution, and miscalculations (such as statistical errors or a false sense of probability).
Some social psychologists believe our cognitive biases help us process information more efficiently, especially in dangerous situations. Still, they lead us to make grave mistakes. We may be prone to such errors in judgment, but at least we can be aware of them. Here are some important ones to keep in mind.
Confirmation Bias
We love to agree with people who agree with us. It's why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views — what the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner called cognitive dissonance. It's this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias — the often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that fuel our pre-existing views, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten our world view. And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.
Ingroup Bias
Somewhat similar to the confirmation bias is the ingroup bias, a manifestation of our innate tribalistic tendencies. And strangely, much of this effect may have to do with oxytocin — the so-called "love molecule." This neurotransmitter, while helping us to forge tighter bonds with people in our ingroup, performs the exact opposite function for those on the outside — it makes us suspicious, fearful, and even disdainful of others. Ultimately, the ingroup bias causes us to overestimate the abilities and value of our immediate group at the expense of people we don't really know.
Gambler's Fallacy
It's called a fallacy, but it's more a glitch in our thinking. We tend to put a tremendous amount of weight on previous events, believing that they'll somehow influence future outcomes. The classic example is coin-tossing. After flipping heads, say, five consecutive times, our inclination is to predict an increase in likelihood that the next coin toss will be tails — that the odds must certainly be in the favor of heads. But in reality, the odds are still 50/50. As statisticians say, the outcomes in different tosses are statistically independent and the probability of any outcome is still 50%.
Relatedly, there's also the positive expectation bias — which often fuels gambling addictions. It's the sense that our luck has to eventually change and that good fortune is on the way. It also contributes to the "hot hand" misconception. Similarly, it's the same feeling we get when we start a new relationship that leads us to believe it will be better than the last one.
Post-Purchase Rationalization
Remember that time you bought something totally unnecessary, faulty, or overly expense, and then you rationalized the purchase to such an extent that you convinced yourself it was a great idea all along? Yeah, that's post-purchase rationalization in action — a kind of built-in mechanism that makes us feel better after we make crappy decisions, especially at the cash register. Also known as Buyer's Stockholm Syndrome, it's a way of subconsciously justifying our purchases — especially expensive ones. Social psychologists say it stems from the principle of commitment, our psychological desire to stay consistent and avoid a state of cognitive dissonance.
Neglecting Probability
Very few of us have a problem getting into a car and going for a drive, but many of us experience great trepidation about stepping inside an airplane and flying at 35,000 feet. Flying, quite obviously, is a wholly unnatural and seemingly hazardous activity. Yet virtually all of us know and acknowledge the fact that the probability of dying in an auto accident is significantly greater than getting killed in a plane crash — but our brains won't release us from this crystal clear logic (statistically, we have a 1 in 84 chance of dying in a vehicular accident, as compared to a 1 in 5,000 chance of dying in an plane crash [other sources indicate odds as high as 1 in 20,000]). It's the same phenomenon that makes us worry about getting killed in an act of terrorism as opposed to something far more probable, like falling down the stairs or accidental poisoning.
This is what the social psychologist Cass Sunstein calls probability neglect — our inability to properly grasp a proper sense of peril and risk — which often leads us to overstate the risks of relatively harmless activities, while forcing us to overrate more dangerous ones.
Observational Selection Bias
This is that effect of suddenly noticing things we didn't notice that much before — but we wrongly assume that the frequency has increased. A perfect example is what happens after we buy a new car and we inexplicably start to see the same car virtually everywhere. A similar effect happens to pregnant women who suddenly notice a lot of other pregnant women around them. Or it could be a unique number or song. It's not that these things are appearing more frequently, it's that we've (for whatever reason) selected the item in our mind, and in turn, are noticing it more often. Trouble is, most people don't recognize this as a selectional bias, and actually believe these items or events are happening with increased frequency — which can be a very disconcerting feeling. It's also a cognitive bias that contributes to the feeling that the appearance of certain things or events couldn't possibly be a coincidence (even though it is).
Status-Quo Bias
We humans tend to be apprehensive of change, which often leads us to make choices that guarantee that things remain the same, or change as little as possible. Needless to say, this has ramifications in everything from politics to economics. We like to stick to our routines, political parties, and our favorite meals at restaurants. Part of the perniciousness of this bias is the unwarranted assumption that another choice will be inferior or make things worse. The status-quo bias can be summed with the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" — an adage that fuels our conservative tendencies. And in fact, some commentators say this is why the U.S. hasn't been able to enact universal health care, despite the fact that most individuals support the idea of reform.
Negativity Bias
People tend to pay more attention to bad news — and it's not just because we're morbid. Social scientists theorize that it's on account of our selective attention and that, given the choice, we perceive negative news as being more important or profound. We also tend to give more credibility to bad news, perhaps because we're suspicious (or bored) of proclamations to the contrary. More evolutionarily, heeding bad news may be more adaptive than ignoring good news (e.g. "saber tooth tigers suck" vs. "this berry tastes good"). Today, we run the risk of dwelling on negativity at the expense of genuinely good news. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that crime, violence, war, and other injustices are steadily declining, yet most people would argue that things are getting worse — what is a perfect example of the negativity bias at work.
Bandwagon Effect
Though we're often unconscious of it, we love to go with the flow of the crowd. When the masses start to pick a winner or a favorite, that's when our individualized brains start to shut down and enter into a kind of "groupthink" or hivemind mentality. But it doesn't have to be a large crowd or the whims of an entire nation; it can include small groups, like a family or even a small group of office co-workers. The bandwagon effect is what often causes behaviors, social norms, and memes to propagate among groups of individuals — regardless of the evidence or motives in support. This is why opinion polls are often maligned, as they can steer the perspectives of individuals accordingly. Much of this bias has to do with our built-in desire to fit in and conform, as famously demonstrated by the Asch Conformity Experiments.
Projection Bias
As individuals trapped inside our own minds 24/7, it's often difficult for us to project outside the bounds of our own consciousness and preferences. We tend to assume that most people think just like us — though there may be no justification for it. This cognitive shortcoming often leads to a related effect known as the false consensus bias where we tend to believe that people not only think like us, but that they also agree with us. It's a bias where we overestimate how typical and normal we are, and assume that a consensus exists on matters when there may be none. Moreover, it can also create the effect where the members of a radical or fringe group assume that more people on the outside agree with them than is the case. Or the exaggerated confidence one has when predicting the winner of an election or sports match.
The Current Moment Bias
We humans have a really hard time imagining ourselves in the future and altering our behaviors and expectations accordingly. Most of us would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later. This is a bias that is of particular concern to economists (i.e. our unwillingness to not overspend and save money) and health practitioners. Indeed, a 1998 study showed that, when making food choices for the coming week, 74% of participants chose fruit. But when the food choice was for the current day, 70% chose chocolate.
Anchoring Effect
Also known as the relativity trap, this is the tendency we have to compare and contrast only a limited set of items. It's called the anchoring effect because we tend to fixate on a value or number that in turn gets compared to everything else. The classic example is an item at the store that's on sale; we tend to see (and value) the difference in price, but not the overall price itself. This is why some restaurant menus feature very expensive entrees, while also including more (apparently) reasonably priced ones. It's also why, when given a choice, we tend to pick the middle option — not too expensive, and not too cheap.


Potato Bar Party

Attended my first Potato Bar party last night.What a sweet, family-friendly way to get the neighborhood peeps together.
Toppings can get fun and different.


Craft An Adventure Today for You and Yours


I'm proud to announce my article, Soulful Gestures, was published in the AAMFT's professional magazine, Family Therapy: The American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy.

Soulful Gestures
foster (fôs’tər) v. cherish, nurse, nourish, raise
      I remember the first day of graduate school when the professor asked how many of us had children. Very few hands went up and mine wasn’t one of them. Then, in a foreboding tone he prophesied that we would most likely not become parents because this career path would realize our instinctual motherly needs.
     He was right. Of the 23 years that I have worked in social services, I have only been a mother the last four. My maternal needs were, in fact, met by my clients. Good social workers nurture their clients, of any age.
     My mentors have all been childless, all work horses: two rock-solid women and one wise-as-a-library gentleman. All three had the real-deal look of a social worker, that mystical combination of fatigue and enthusiasm – flyaway hair, comfortable clothes, tired faces - always hurrying towards their feeble vehicles loaded with boxes and files.
     Today, I am a dinosaur in social services: pencil, clipboard, common sense. It’s a draining job and the rewards must come from within - one’s own internal dialogue about making a difference and how the world is better and all that smart self-talk.
     But, the real reason I put off bringing a child into this world for so many years was because I rarely experienced a happy kid. The only children I knew were raging rivers, sad, and unable to attach - their psychic injuries manifested in a thousand different ways.
It’s a bit like trying to re-weave a basket, with the reeds stiffly jutting out of shape, except they are tiny hearts and minds. TLC is necessary but no longer sufficient to meet the developmental needs of the kids in my care. Once a child’s folder has been handed to me, the child has not only been abused, but she has now abused others.
     Being pregnant was a chilling time for me. A social worker often becomes the central authority figure in a family’s life, and to the children involved, my pregnancy signaled one more inevitable abandonment. Angry adolescents assault and lash out, mostly towards their consistent and safe adults.
     Children raised in foster care, crudely referred to as “system kids,” know how to find your vulnerable area, like bloodhounds, they seek out a soft spot and target it. Even the sweetest child who is happy to see me will wish a miscarriage upon me so I don’t leave her, for my new “real” family.
     They know every square inch of their environment - scan, study, memorize. Abused kids are especially hypervigilant, often their very life has depended upon it. When I wonder if a client’s mom has returned to drugs, the child always knows after “hello.” From a block away, he can tell. He will know instantly, yet do his best to hide his discovery from me (I may not be able to read her but I can most definitely read him).
     The names of clients rattle around in my head – press in on my heart - and seem to be unforgettable; but they are, over time.  I try to recall the girl with the long hair and pretty teeth. She was quick…broke a staff’s nose during Phys. Ed. She later cut her hands on a window in my office during a therapy session with her pedophile father. Another client was found dead at the age of twenty in a nearby anonymous park, a beautiful park really, after “aging out” at 18 with nowhere to go. Never had a chance really.
    Or the 7-year old blond girl who had witnessed so much perversion that she would masturbate against bedposts, door knobs, and trees, with a maniacal energy – pitifully unable to manage her anxiety and overexposure.
     Still, there are a few names that I will carry to my grave, like Milo*. He was an obese boy with an electric face.  He needed his second hip surgery and it fell upon me, alone, to be with him through that surgery. His mother came to visit each week. She started showing a pregnancy about the same time I noticed she was using drugs again. Mom made a long trek by bus, always punctual, soft-spoken and polite. It was sickening and surreal to witness; those slow gray lids as the baby inside her grew a little each week. The baby was born premature and blind.
     And another name – Rebecca*, the oldest of seven children, incidentally beat by her father when she got in the way of him roughing up mom. Rebecca’s mom could hardly make eye contact, with her severe depression. Yet, she would bring her daughter complete meals - fresh salad! - accompanied by silverware and real plates: the family’s best to sit at our dirty picnic tables with some feeling of normal. Mom would bring her other six children when visiting, including a newborn. To this very day she was the most agile nurser I have ever seen.
     I remember her hazily mentioning that this was to be her last baby - she had her “tubes tied” when the doctors declared one more pregnancy would kill her. I always wondered about that.
     The foster care child of today is usually hit in all major arteries. There are numerous reasons a child enters foster care but the cornerstone of all social services recipients are those evil twins known as economic and psychological calamity.
          Physical touch and professional boundaries have become words with the single most weight these days. In the current climate, it’s best if I don’t make physical contact, but, maybe a quick hug, in broad daylight only, and after asking, of course.  My touch is authentic but feels dryly clinical. In Noelle Oxenhandler’s exquisite book, “The Eros of Parenthood,” Oxenhandler contends that the prevailing no-touch policy has inadvertently amplified the risk for inappropriate touch to occur.
      For two years I ran a monthly “rap session” for mothers in maximum-security prison. It’s not hard to guess that the sentiment most echoed, wrenchingly so, was the void of their children. The inmate uniforms were identical, yet, each woman would tie yarn threads in such a way as to make it hers, individualized. The big stories and personal dramas don’t tug at me so much, it’s the dainty poetic human behaviors that capture my attention. I would come home from that morning visit and sleep for the rest of the day, limp from the full-body invasion.     
     Early on, single and in my 20’s, I optimistically volunteered as a mentor for an at-risk youth program for a brother and sister pair living with their disabled grandmother. Grandma made me tamales sabroso at Christmas - her only condition in our on-going relationship was that I be out of the neighborhood before dark set in. Occasionally the kids would stay overnight with me in my small apartment near the beach. We would gather shells, bake cookies and attempt to wash my gigantic dog, until the laughter overcame us. But my best memory is an out of town drive we took to visit my family - they inhaled those two children and everyone was better for it. This could never occur today. 
     I ran into that little boy, now a gorgeous young man while standing in line with my baby at the DMV. He had grown up well, strong and responsible. He had just come from seeing his mother hospitalized, one more time. His sister had followed his mother’s legacy into a life of prostitution and heroin addiction. We exchanged numbers but I never heard from him again. Oh, he also said that I had made a difference in his life.
     When I become judgmental, I take inventory and remember that I am very lucky. I live in a safe neighborhood, have health insurance, and reliable transportation. I can afford the more nutritious food choice and am grateful for the luxury of (accidental) good fortune – as James R. Lowell says it, “That best academy, a mother’s knee.”
      And, when I sometimes I wonder if these experiences have made me a better mom, I realize, yes, they have broadened my scope of human nature. I trust my intuition and encourage others to pay close attention, be present at all times. I have been knees to knees with enough perpetrators…I look into their eyes, and say “I Know” and they look away  
     My father told me that he avoids this shadowy “other” existence, while I run directly towards it, and I know this is true. I defer to the wide and textured arc of humanity because darkness is true too, pulsating. Supposedly an artist should pursue a career in art only if he cannot imagine doing anything else for a living. The same philosophy would apply for social work as well. Only do this if you cannot imagine doing anything else.


Grief Resources in North County San Diego Area

Grief Groups weekly. 
One is on Tuesday afternoons from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m., the other is Thursday evenings from 5:30 to 7:00. 

James Reiser Jr. M.A. MFTI
Bereavement Services Coordinator
(cell) 760.593.7284
Hospice of the North Coast
2525 Pio Pico Dr. Suite 301
Carlsbad, CA. 92008

      Family Night in Honor of Children's Grief Awareness Day
The Center for Compassionate Care of The Elizabeth Hospice invites families who are grieving the loss of a loved one to attend a family night on Thursday, November 20 from 5:30pm to 8:00pm at the Scottish Rite Event Center located at 1895 Camino del Rio South San Diego, CA 92108.
In honor of Children’s Grief Awareness Day, please join The Center for Compassionate Care for a dinner reception to honor children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. This family event will feature activities, grief support and education. Attendees will create connections with other families in San Diego County and will be provided local resources to aid them in their journey.
There is no cost to attend, but RSVP is required. For more information, please call (800) 797-2050 or email

Coping with Grief During the Holidays

The Center for Compassionate Care of The Elizabeth Hospice offers a free workshop, Coping with Grief During the Holidays, November 18 from 6:00pm to 8:00pm at The Elizabeth Hospice located at 500 La Terraza Blvd., Suite 130, Escondido.
 Holidays are filled with many precious memories.  This time of year can also be challenging following the loss of a loved one.  Learn various techniques for coping with grief during the holiday season and into the New Year.  Individuals who have experienced the holidays after the death of someone close will be available to share their experiences and answer questions.
 Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one is welcome to attend.  No charge. Space is limited. Registration is accepted through November 14.  For more information or to register, please call (760) 796-3757 or email

 Bereavement for Parents of Children Who Have Died....we meet on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of each month from 10:00 to 11:30 AM in the Bereavement Ministry Office. These meetings are open to anyone who has lost a child or grandchild. There is no charge and meetings are facilitated by Liz Devins, Deacon Rick Pomphrey and a trained facilitator from Hospice of the North Coast. For information please contact Deacon Rick, 760-729-2866, ext 391. Next meeting: Nov 22.


Welcome to Holland

This is a classic essay, Welcome to Holland.
While the topic is a Down's Syndrome parent perspective, I see many correlations to other things in life. I order the Fettucine Alfredo, but get Spaghetti and Meatballs...I plan for a healthy pregnancy, but instead have unexpected complications: these are metaphors for life's curve balls.
Shifting expectations and grabbing at smaller victories brings relief and allows my system to rest, relax, and catch those 15 minutes of pleasure...singing in the car, enjoying a quiet breakfast with kids, feeling good about a work day.  Read on...


Emily Perl Kingsley
c1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All rights reserved
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......
When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."
"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."
But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.
But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.