What Will I Learn in This Course?


Let me give a quick overview of the course so you have an idea of how the course is organized, how the pieces fit together, and what you can expect to learn in this course.

The course is broken into three parts.

(I) What Is a Cognitive Bias?

Part 1 introduces the concept of a cognitive bias. What are cognitive biases? What does the word “bias” mean in this context?

In this section I’ll show you an example of a cognitive bias, the Gambler’s Fallacy, and use that to illustrate the concept.

Why are cognitive biases important for critical thinking? How do they undermine, or work against, the goals of critical thinking?

Why have cognitive biases received so much attention, and why has cognitive bias training become so popular in recent years?

I can’t go a day browsing the web without running into a new article on cognitive biases and business, or cognitive biases and marketing, but employee training in cognitive biases has also taken off.

I review three types of reasons why this has happened.

The first is about avoiding seriously negative outcomes, or disasters.

The second is about a desire to improve performance.

And the third is about promoting social justice. I’ll talk about the relationship of cognitive biases to prejudicial implicit biases related to gender and racial discrimination.

(II) Cognitive Biases: A Guided Tour

Part 2 introduces some important examples of cognitive biases. There are dozens and dozens that one could talk about, but I elaborate on four here.

Confirmation bias, arguably the most discussed and one of the most important biases. We’ll look at three distinct ways that this bias can distort how we weigh evidence and evaluate arguments.

Pattern-seeking, which is about our tendency to see patterns, even where there are none; and to look for causally meaningful explanations of the patterns we see, even when there may be no such explanation.

Anchoring, or, the anchoring effect. This is about how we use the first piece of information we’re given to help us answer difficult questions, even when the information is irrelevant to the question. I give a number of fun and unsettling examples of this effect.

And finally hindsight bias. This is our tendency to judge events as more predictable than we otherwise should, looking back on them in hindsight. This bias inflates our willingness to assign responsibility and blame for events which may not have been predictable at all.

I say we that we’re only talking about four biases, but I’ve actually got three or four other biases sprinkled through these discussions, like “framing effects”, “bias blind spots”, and others. So you’ll actually be exposed to a wider range of biases than just these four.

(III) Debiasing

In the last part of the course we’ll talk about “debiasing”.

Debiasing strategies are designed to minimize or avoid the negative effects of cognitive biases. They’re tools for improving our critical thinking.

In this introduction I look at two broad categories of debiasing strategy, one category that involves modifying the decision-maker, and another category that involves modifying the environment in which decisions are made.

A topic that I think is important to talk about is resistance to debiasing. Anyone who works in the business consulting field knows that not everyone is equally open to the message, and I talk about some reasons why people and businesses resist implementing strategies that could improve the quality of their decision-making.

Finally, we’ll look at a set of debiasing strategies that have been shown to be effective. All of them involve strategies that force us to widen our thinking and pay attention to ideas and alternatives that we would otherwise ignore.

That’s just a quick overview. In the next lecture we’ll start at the beginning with the question, “what is a cognitive bias”?