A Simple Way to Reduce Cognitive Bias


Would you like to be more rational? Of course you would. Who doesn’t want to behave and think more reasonably? Good news: New research, from Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, suggests mindfulness, or at least an aspect of it, can help. By “mindfulness”—a feature of Buddhism for thousands of years, and a subject of scientific investigation for a few decades—most people mean a mental state you can be in. Let’s try.

Jim Davies | NAUTILUS

Pay attention to your current sensations—the feeling of your back against a chair, or the weight of your phone in your hand. Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings flitting in your mind. Don’t “judge” them. Merely notice that they’re there. If you find yourself bringing past or possible future events into your imagination, let those drift off, and attend again to your present sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Not too difficult, right? Being mindful for a few seconds is easy. Being mindful for an hour is very difficult.

It appears that mindfulness reduces cognitive bias, but these results need to be interpreted carefully.

One way to encourage people to be more mindful is to ask them to try to notice more things, and one way to measure mindfulness is to measure their ability to do so. Langer and her colleague Philip Maymin, of Fairfield University, used this aspect of mindfulness to try to reduce that familiar enemy of rationality—cognitive biases. There are names for over 100 of the systematic ways we think about the world irrationally. But it is likely that many are multiple names for the same underlying psychological process. (The tendency to give new names for things that already have names my colleague and I playfully call the McKee-Davies bias, which might be the first bias to be named as a result of itself.)

Maymin and Langer randomly divided 109 people into a “mindless” control group, a “low-mindful” group, and a “mindful” group. The low-mindful group chose their favorite of two random-dot patterns with subtle triangles. The mindful group looked at two slightly-less random images, and spotted hard-to-find differences between them. Then they looked at two nearly identical images of a fruit pile at once, and tried to spot which fruit, from one of the piles, was missing. Maymin and Langer measured people’s mindfulness using a survey, specifically a 14-item measure that focuses on flexibility of thinking and noticing new things (an admittedly Western conception of mindfulness).

The results confirmed that the mindful group, as a result of the attention they paid to their task, was actually mindful, and the mindless and low mindful groups were not. 

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