Top 5 Weirdest Cognitive Biases


cognitive-hazardI was writing yesterday about Buster’s Cheat sheet of Cognitive Biases that he composed from the list found on the Wikipedia page entitled “List of cognitive biases“. Browse that list and you will find some familiar friends such as “Confirmation Bias” or “Backfire effect“. However, you will also find some truly strange ones, and so I’ve picked out a few into a list of the top five weirdest cognitive biases.

This is a wholly subjective list and while it is just a bit of fun, it is also an opportunity to learn a bit more about human cognitive biases.

1 – Ben Franklin effect

What is it: A person who has performed a favor for someone is more likely to do another favor for that person than they would be if they had received a favor from that person.

This is the opposite of how humans can de-humanize those they hate – we help somebody and then we rationalise that we did that because we like them. That then makes us more inclined to help them again.

The name for this comes from something that Benjamin Franklin recorded within his autobiography. There he recounts that there is an old maxim that states …

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

… and illustrates how an example of exactly this played out in his life as follows …

My first promotion was my being chosen, in 1736, clerk of the General Assembly. The choice was made that year without opposition; but the year following, when I was again proposed (the choice, like that of the members, being annual), a new member made a long speech against me, in order to favor some other candidate …

I therefore did not like the opposition of this new member, who was a gentleman of fortune and education, with talents that were likely to give him, in time, great influence in the House, which, indeed, afterwards happened. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favor by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He said it immediately, in I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we become great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

2 – IKEA effect

What is it: Placing a disproportionately high value on a product you partially created. It is named after Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, which sells many furniture products that require assembly.

This insight comes from a paper published by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, Daniel Mochon of Yale University, and Dan Ariely of Duke University in 2011. What they found is that when people use their own labor to construct a particular product, even if done badly, they value the end result more than if they had not put any effort into its creation.

Least you wonder, yes, it was indeed a real peer-reviewed paper within a credible journal.

I can, as perhaps we all can, relate to it.

Having once built some shelves in my daughter’s bedroom, it remained up for quite some time. Not primarily because it was good, but rather because I had built it myself, hence I resisted the idea of replacing it with something better. The issue was that everybody, except myself, could see that almost anything else would have been better.

3 – Bizarreness effect

What is it: The idea that the more bizarre something is, the more probable it is that you will remember it.

There is actually a dispute regarding this one. There is a book on the topic that costs £31 to buy, but hey, thanks to Google you can read a relevant summary at this link. Basically the counter argument is that it is not the weirdness that enhances our ability to remember, but rather that it is simply distinct, and that perhaps makes more sense.

The fact that the “Bizarreness Effect” is actually listed on a page of cognitive biases when in reality the very existence of it is disputed is perhaps in itself a tad bizarre.

4 – Google effect

What is it: The Google effect, also called digital amnesia, is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. The phenomenon was first described and named by Betsy Sparrow (Columbia), Jenny Liu (Wisconsin) and Daniel M. Wegner (Harvard) in their paper from July 2011.

You will most probably know about this if you have a smartphone. If a phone number has changed because a family member got a new phone, or perhaps you yourself have moved house then you will probably realise that you do not know the number.

I have no idea what my own home phone number is, and I have no idea what the mobile phone numbers for any family member are. I don’t need to know because when I dial, I no longer pull a number from memory or a notebook, instead I simply select a name and tap “call”. You might perhaps find this to be an odd observation, but perhaps what is truly strange is that we once simply accepted as normal the need for an impressive memory (or a comprehensive notebook) to be able to use a phone, and never challenged that concept. Now that we don’t, we find that odd.

Remembering numbers is just one example, it manifests itself in all sorts of ways. If you work in a technical context, then you no longer need to memorize specific things, and can instead just google, or go to a reference site and look it up. If for example you cut code, you might find that you no longer remember some syntax notations, instead you can just google an example.

The information is held now within a digital store instead of our heads. What we do remember is where to find the information, we just tend to no longer remember the actual information itself.

Knowing how to use some of the advanced search terms in google is a very useful skill and of immense value. For example if you wanted to filter search results by eliminating hits from a specific site that you know is crap, how would you do that? Ask and you will probably find nobody knows, but you are not worried because you also know that you can just google it and get the answer anyway.

Welcome to the new world of digital amnesia in which we are growing an ever increasing dependency upon information technology.

5 – Pareidolia

What is it: This is perhaps my favourite, it is where your mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.

Perhaps the best way of explaining this is to simply give you examples, and so with that thought, I’ll just leave the following images here for you to enjoy.

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