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Curb Your Biases

How to avoid errors in judgment and thinking.

Curb Your Biases

Nobel Prize-winning author and psychologist Daniel Kahneman lays out the case for two systems of thinking in humans in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. “System 1” is fast. It’s the system that reacts automatically to noise. It lets you drive without much conscious thought and answer simple questions by rote. “System 2” thinking is more deliberate. It’s the system you use to analyze data and methodically think through a problem. 

The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world, which represents what is normal in it.

Daniel Kahneman

These two systems interact with each other constantly. You can focus on a task using “System 2,” become tired and distracted and then find yourself doing a “System 1” task without realizing you’ve switched Systems. “System 2” demands more physical and mental resources. When you devote those resources to “System 2” thinking, “System 1” thinking relies more on stereotypes and habit. This is when biases creep into your deliberations. You also become more vulnerable to temptations and consider issues more superficially. “System 1” likes the easy answer, even when it’s not the best. 

Image of: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Book Summary

Thinking, Fast and Slow

“Two systems” vie for control of your mind, and “two selves” decide your happiness. Can all four of you ever get along?

Daniel Kahneman Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Read Summary

Here are some more ways to think about thinking: 

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Who’s in Charge?

What makes you think you’re in control of yourself?

Michael S. Gazzaniga Ecco Read Summary
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Your Brain at Work

Understanding how your brain works can help you boost your mental processes, improve your focus and cope with stress.

David Rock HarperBusiness Read Summary
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The Divided Brain

This time her husband came along, founding his own company where Ursula is on the board.

Iain McGilchrist RSA Read Summary
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The Emotional Life of Your Brain

Is your “Emotional Style” helping or hindering you?

Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley Plume Read Summary
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The Emotional Brain

Humans since the ancient Greeks have been trying to understand their emotions. This book presents the current theories.

Joseph LeDoux Simon & Schuster Read Summary
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Book Summary

Consciousness and the Brain

A thorough overview of contemporary scientific thought regarding consciousness.

Stanislas Dehaene Viking Read Summary
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Book Summary

The Illusion of Conscious Will

You believe your thoughts cause your actions, but perhaps your will is not always really in charge.

Daniel M. Wegner MIT Press Read Summary

As you learn more about your brain, you begin to see that many of your foibles and mistakes come down to the way your brain is built.

David Rock

Reason Is Not Always Reasonable

For cognitive scientist Dan Sperber, the reason for reason is social: to persuade others and to build consensus. Humans prefer to think fast, and cognitive biases provide the mental shortcuts that make it easier to do so, but this leads to erroneous thinking. For instance, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky found that people tend to suspend disbelief when they hear information formulated as a story, even more so if that story aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. 

Image of: The Function of Reason
Article Summary

The Function of Reason

Human reasoning is inherently faulty – so what’s its evolutionary purpose?

Dan Sperber
Read Summary

People are generally biased towards optimism, favor present over future gains, and are unconsciously influenced by “anchoring,” meaning that the first piece of data concerning a topic sticks most firmly in your mind and “anchors” your understanding of what follows, even if that information is incorrect, a tactic often used in negotiations.

There are more than one hundred of these kinds of cognitive biases. Read more about them here:

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The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis details how two brilliant friends changed how the world thinks about thought and reason.

Michael Lewis W.W. Norton Read Summary
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The Ostrich Paradox

Why do people hide their heads in the sand?

Howard Kunreuther and Robert Meyer Wharton Digital Press Read Summary
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The Optimism Bias

Your brain’s optimistic nature can help you make better life and business decisions.

Tali Sharot Pantheon Books Read Summary
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The Elephant in the Brain

What better way to deceive others than to deceive yourself?

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson Oxford UP Read Summary
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The Intelligence Trap

Sometimes, intelligent people do stupid things.

David Robson W.W. Norton Read Summary
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The Backwards Brain Bicycle

Learning how to ride a bike is easy. Unlearning how to ride a bike? Not so much.

Destin Sandlin Smarter Every Day Read Summary

Biases Can Hurt You and Others 

People often have political, racial, ethnic or gender biases as well, biases that lead them to selectively search out supportive information, known as “confirmation bias,” and ignore contradictory information. Combined with anger, this tendency makes people more vulnerable to misinformation. Groups of people with similar unconscious biases entrench what become systemic biases. 

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Book Summary

Willful Blindness

Hindsight is 20/20, but daily insight is not, so take off your blinders and avoid future trauma by opening your eyes.

Margaret Heffernan Walker & Company
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Social support makes it easier to do things or believe in ideas that would feel a lot more uncomfortable if we were on our own.

Margaret Heffernan

Read more about these kinds of biases and their consequences here: 

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Everyday Bias

Free your decision making from unconscious biases.

Howard J. Ross Rowman & Littlefield Read Summary
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The Bias Detective

Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt shows how unconscious racial bias can be overcome in turbulent times.

Douglas Starr Science Read Summary
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Book Summary


Bias is innate and affects all your perceptions. Luckily, that doesn’t mean your views can’t change.

Jennifer L. Eberhardt PhD Viking Read Summary
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Where Are the Women?

Scientists claim NICHD’s former director discriminated against women, and neglected female health studies.

Meredith Wadman Science Read Summary
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Bias and Barriers

Low female labor participation casts an economic shadow over the Middle East and North Africa.

Nazila Fathi Finance & Development Magazine Read Summary
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A Guide to Gender

Gender is more complex than checking off a box labeled “man” or “woman.” Prepare to go down the rabbit hole.

Sam Killermann Impetus Books Read Summary
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The Opportunity Costs of Weight Bias at Work

Learn to recognize and reduce weight-based bias in the workplace.

Enrica N. Ruggs, Eden B. King and Mikki R. Hebl MIT Sloan Management Review Read Summary
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This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

Humanity is uniquely adaptable, but can people escape their hardwired biases?

Robert Sapolsky Foreign Affairs Read Summary
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Subtle Acts of Exclusion

An inclusive corporate culture fosters greater collaboration, productivity, happiness and connection.

Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran Berrett-Koehler Publishers Read Summary

Develop Better Thinking Habits 

Ward against cognitive biases by deliberately slowing your thinking. In his book Winning the Brain Game, Matthew E. May suggests “framestorming” as a way to avoid leaping to conclusions. It’s a combination of framing problems and brainstorming, where instead of generating as many answers as possible without judgment, you generate as many questions as possible, probing the whys, whats, what ifs and hows of your problem. Read his other suggestions for short-circuiting biased thinking:

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Book Summary

Winning the Brain Game

When you’re trying to puzzle out a problem, your thinking can fail in seven predictable ways.

Matthew E. May McGraw-Hill Education
Read Summary

Here’s some additional reading on upping your thinking game: 

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Problem Solved

The “AREA Method” provides a framework for putting ideas to good use in solving problems.

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn Career Press Read Summary
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The Huge Benefits of Working in Your Second Language

Working in a second language can offer surprising advantages – even if you’re not fluent.

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Sources of Power

Make decisions like an expert.

Gary Klein MIT Press Read Summary
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Predictably Irrational

Revealing exposé of decision making based on anecdotes and insights from experiments in behavioral economics.

Dan Ariely Harper Read Summary
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Brain Rules

Want to use your brain like a champ? Learn what scientists know about the marvelous machine in your head.

John Medina Pear Press Read Summary

And for those concerned about the institutional effects of sloppy thinking, authors Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer describe several ways to avoid it

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Book Summary

The Stupidity Paradox

Why do so many organizations actively encourage stupidity? And how can they get smart?

Mats Alvesson and André Spicer Profile Books
Read Summary

Read more in our Cognitive Biases channel:

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Cognitive Biases

Open Channel
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Cognitive Neuroscience

Open Channel
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