In the 1970s psychologists who were studying decision-making presented research that showed we tended to make decisions in an illogical way – which was the opposite of common sense and measured judgement. These gaps of logic became known as cognitive biases – patterns of repeated thought and behaviour that drew us to particular conclusions or ways of thinking and acting.

Pattern recognition and emotional tagging (attaching emotional information to memories stored in the brain) are two processes that contribute to cognitive bias. Both suggest constraints on our cognitive systems that see us making decisions based on prior events or occurrences. Both utilise heuristics – which can be described as mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load on us when we need to make decisions. These mental shortcuts are often based on past experiences or past emotional connection to certain things.

A well-known example of cognitive bias is confirmation bias – which we use to affirm our view on the World. We readily accept information which supports what we believe and reject information and data which goes against our beliefs. This applies not just to opinion-based information but research has shown that people use confirmation bias to interpret statistics. Negativity bias is another – when we pay more attention to negative rather than positive experiences. Negativity bias means that setbacks have significantly greater effect on our happiness than any positive experiences we have. In a professional environment if we are more likely to remember the negative events than the positive it may well end up altering our decision-making in the future.

The impact of bias in our decision-making is significant. Potential risks can be underestimated because of misplaced optimism. Decisions can be made that are at odds with logic and rational judgement. Decisions are made without careful evaluation. Certain cognitive biases can result in perceptual blindness or distortion, illogical interpretation – even of statistics, and put simply: bad decision-making. We are susceptible to cognitive biases especially when we are fatigued, stressed or multitasking. Unfortunately all existing in the modern workforce.
Cognitive biases are not all negative – they can be survival tools that contribute to good decision-making (and no doubt in Paleolithic times – to survival).

Cognitive biases narrow our view of the world. However, by understanding our tendencies and removing our dependency on biases we can develop a wider perspective on what we see and what factors we bring into our decision-making.
Cognitive biases impact ethical decision-making and can help explain why good people make bad decisions. This can occur when individuals want to obtain desired outcomes for themselves such as career advancement or financial reward. Where there is too much emotional attachment to the desired outcome “impact bias” can cause individuals to behave unethically and selfishly.

This paper will look in greater detail at the occurrence of cognitive biases: what they are and why they are formed. We will examine how these biases impact on ethical decision-making and the strategies for improving our decision-making processes.

Published on Legalwise 24 January 2019.