How cognitive bias can ruin your dinner

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

I was pacing around my kitchen on Saturday afternoon, trying to motivate myself to make supper and feeling thoroughly, creatively, blue.

I tried my normal habit, which is to trace back to what kicked it off. Was it the (perfectly pleasant) conversation with my neighbour? Was it not getting replies about my podcast? Was it the hole in my favourite socks, or the size of my to-do list?

Since none of those things seemed to be giving me the answer, I tried some self-doubt. That reassured me that things might, indeed, be hopeless, and that having any ability to write, create, do interesting things or even come up with a reasonably attractive meal was about as likely as Leonardo da Vinci running a chocolate shop on Mars.

And then, suddenly, it all became completely clear.

The obvious answer we can’t see

Sometimes the answer is right there, waiting for us. But we’re too busy looking elsewhere.

I get into the craziness of our own brains with Neil Pavitt on The Creative Life Show. Neil is the author of Brainhack, a fast and fun guide to how to make the most of your grey matter.

The problem is what’s called cognitive bias. And this is how it works. We think we have a good overall view of the situation, and that we are perfectly rational.

We weigh up what’s happening, and are probably proud of our ability to see different perspectives and angles.

In fact, 165 out of 166 of us think that we are more objective than the average person.


Right there, that’s an example of cognitive bias in action. We deeply, honestly, believe that we’re less biased than most people. (In fact, you’re probably sagely reassuring yourself right at this moment that this is all very well, but you really are).

Cognitive bias is all about the thinking patterns in our brains. We create patterns – literally, neural connections or pathways – that mean we almost invariably think in the same way, no matter how open-minded we think we’re being. We simply do not have the connections that allow us to see something else.

The implications are huge. It means that when we hit a problem, we try to solve it in the same way we did last time, or with the resources we always use. We respond in the same way to challenges, and we see opportunity or threat in the same way we always do.

And yet to make real progress we have to somehow find a way of reaching the answers we can’t see.

Why we need new thinking patterns to beat cognitive bias

Neil Pavitt talks about the ski manufacturers who had a problem with vibration. They solved it, not with solutions from other ski manufacturers, but by learning how violin makers deal with vibrations at a particular frequency.

The key here was to narrow it down to find very precisely what the problem was – in this case, vibrations, not the field, which would have been skis.

Arguably, the less you know about solving that particular problem, the better. It means you’re less likely to make assumptions and more likely to go out and look for solutions completely outside what you already know. This is what makes the saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ so true.

How to beat cognitive bias

It’s tough to do it on your own, but not impossible. Here are four steps to take next time you’re hitting a blank.

1. Recognise that you’re almost certainly making assumptions and decisions based on your own information and experience, and that those will, at best, be only part of the solution.

2. Try to define the problem as precisely as you can, ideally in 10 words or less. (‘Customers don’t pick up our magazine in the newsagent’, ’I can’t explain my ideas to my boss clearly enough’, or ‘The blue on my paintings is not what I want’.)

3. Ask yourself: what might someone say with an entirely different perspective? What would they ask you about it? Be creative, have fun: what would Neil Armstrong, your yoga teacher, Picasso, your most scientific friend say about it? (Beware of asking the live ones directly until you’ve been able to articulate the problem, or you may find they go off in an entirely different direction).

4. List at least 10 different ways you could approach a problem, or take the next step to move things forwards.

The problem isn’t what you think it is

My working through the different causes of my blue-ness finally gave me this very simple flash of insight.

But the reason I hadn’t seen it immediately that I was too caught up in a belief that feeling down about my creative abilities must have some big, universal truth attached to it.

On Friday night I’d been out late with friends, laughing a lot and drinking, um, a certain amount of beer. And on Saturday morning I woke up very early. (Why is that?)

So by supper time on Saturday I was just tired. Tired, a bit cold, and a bit hungry.

That simple.

Miraculously, realising that suddenly got rid of the problem.

My brain threw off its grumpiness, fired itself into action, and I made supper and wrote the beginnings of this blog post in the next 45 minutes.

It turned out that the problem wasn’t even being tired, or feeling blue. It was worrying about it.

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