Sometimes the human brain can seem really stupid. Even with all our impressive mental powers, we still have trouble accurately interpreting everything from our own perceptions to social interactions to statistical probabilities. It’s like each of us is wearing an invisible pair of eyeglasses that manipulate what we think we see by filtering out, highlighting, or altering distinct pieces of information.
These metaphorical eyeglasses represent our cognitive biases. According to one research group’s working definition, cognitive bias is responsible for:
…cases in which human cognition reliably produces representations that are systematically distorted compared to some aspect of objective reality.
If you looked at a list of cognitive biases, you might wonder if it is possible for people to ever truly be objective at all. Yet, despite their potentially negative impact, cognitive biases aren’t all bad, especially when we consider questions about how and why they might have evolved in the first place.
On the surface, cognitive biases appear to be somewhat puzzling when viewed through an evolutionary lens. Because they depart from standards of logic and accuracy, they appear to be design flaws instead of examples of good engineering …
To the evolutionary psychologist, however, the evaluative task is not whether the cognitive feature is accurate or logical, but rather how well it solves a particular problem, and how solving this problem contributed to fitness ancestrally. Viewed in this way, if a cognitive bias positively impacted fitness it is not a design flaw – it is a design feature.
From this perspective, it makes sense that cognitive bias isn’t a flaw we can just fix. It’s more useful to think of cognitive bias as a feature of the way the brain evolved. In which case, we have to be prepared to work with what we’ve got.
And what if cognition itself somehow emerges from the capacity for bias? Then it might be even more accurate to think of cognitive bias as a requirement of the way the brain functions. In that case, it’s not enough to attempt to minimize cognitive bias — we also need to integrate it into our understanding of how the brain works, how we learn, and how we design for learning.