It’s Beliefs month on DPSN – are you aware of your own bias?

This month’s theme on DPSN is ‘beliefs’.  We’ve invited our bloggers to reflect on their ideas around what beliefs we choose to hold in life – this might be a reflection on their own beliefs, the beliefs of (or about) others, morals, religion, values, myths, stories, spirituality, or just things that they’ve always known to be true!  We’re keen for you to be part of the conversation, so let us know what you think when you hear the word ‘beliefs’ in the comments below, or jump over to our Facebook page and join the conversation there.

When someone mentions ‘beliefs’ to me, rather than thinking of morals or religion, my mind instead (unsurprisingly) goes straight to psychological concepts.  I’ve written about the Just World Belief before – the belief that bad things only happen to bad people (therefore if someone is not well off, we assume it must be caused by their own actions) – back in 2012.  Over the years, I’ve discovered a great many more interesting cognitive biases that people hold, both in theory through study as well as in my therapeutic practice.  I still find it remarkable how good we can be at holding on to some of these beliefs, despite all evidence to the contrary (and I include myself in that statement!)


Some of the more recognisable ones are the bandwagon effect (believing something just because many other people believe it), the ostrich effect (burying your head in the sand, or ignoring bad news), and stereotyping.

Confirmation bias is also really common.  This is when you only look at information that supports the thing that you already believe.  For example if you think that a particular diet is healthy, then you’ll likely find lots of articles that support it being very healthy, but you’ll ignore, not look for, or not find any that say it’s not.  Or, if you think flying is dangerous, you’ll probably find tonnes of information and examples to support this, but ignore any information or statistics that say that it’s safer than driving (I do this all the time!)

Projection is one that comes from the psychoanalytic tradition (ie. Freud and Jung).  The idea is that projection is when you psychologically ‘defend’ yourself by denying any of your own negative qualities, but attribute them to others instead.  For example, a person who is never on time to appointments might constantly accuse other people of not being on time.  Unfortunately, we see this all the time in victim blaming (‘she must have deserved it’), bullying (people being aggressive because they actually feel vulnerable), or guilt-tripping (making accusations to make someone feel bad, because you actually feel a bit guilty yourself).

On the flip side, projection can be positive too.  Such as when someone thinks that other people must be pleased with a result, because they are pleased with it themselves.  Or when they think others hold hope for them, because they may have a seed of hope within themselves.

The ‘placebo effect’ is also another one most of us have heard of.  This is the idea that believing something that will have a certain effect causes that effect, and it’s a known and measurable factor that affects medication trials.  This is why most research studies have a ‘control group’ – a group that is given a placebo (or sugar pill, with no active ingredient) so that they can measure the placebo effect and compare it to the effect on people given the real medication.  

If you search for ‘cognitive bias’ online, you’ll find a huge number of interesting results.  I particularly like this list of ‘20 Cognitive Biases that Affect your Decisions’ from Mental_floss as it’s simple, visual, and lists so many that are easy to recognise.

I think sometimes when we talk about cognitive bias it’s easy to feel like we must be doing something wrong by having them.  But the simple reality is that we all hold these beliefs to a certain extent, some of course more than others.  I sometimes explain to clients that cognitive biases are more like little ‘mental shortcuts’ that can at times be helpful and simplify the way we navigate the world.  At other times, they don’t serve us so well.  

I think what’s important is just to notice when and where we’re doing it – and have a little insight into whether we really think this is true, or whether perhaps we need to consider the bigger picture.  So when I get on an aeroplane, remembering how safe it is (statistically speaking) helps a little to reduce my anxiety about flying!

How about you?  What cognitive bias have you noticed in the way you see the world?

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