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Oct 30 / Cristy Danford

Cognitive Bias and Policy

Written by Kim Wiljanen

Cognitive biases are largely unconscious responses that underlie all of our thoughts and actions.  They are so tightly woven within the persona and mental processes that they are almost invisible or are viewed as a character trait.  Many people may not even be aware that they exist.  Bias is often easier to see in others than in ourselves.

Johnson, Blumstein, Fowler and Haselton (2013) believe that cognitive biases are part of the natural selection process that is meant to protect individuals from danger.  Their Error Management Theory (EMT) posits that cognitive biases are a form of adaptive behavior patterns that generate caution and protective habits in individuals as a response to danger or as a means of coping in an uncertain environment (pp. 476-477).  Similar to the well-known “fight or flight” syndrome, we incorporate a variety of defensive behaviors into our lives such as looking both ways before we cross the street or watching people in a room full of strangers.  Biases help individuals sort out conflicting information and balance options when making decisions.  Of course, this is a selective process and the decision will support and validate the personal interest of the individual (Sharek, Schoen & Lowenstein, 2012, p.368).

Goodmundsson and Lechner (2013) performed a study in Iceland to see how biases of entrepreneurs affected the success rate in start-up companies. They found that a certain amount of overconfidence and distrust often led to a good success rate.  Overconfidence and optimism were not quite as conducive to success because the entrepreneurs failed to understand the market and maneuver around the problems.  Kahneman (2011) noted an example of one optimistic couple that took over a failing business and were confident in their ability to succeed six or seven predecessors could not (pp. 271-272).

Across the years, Kahneman and Tversky have studied the nature and effect of biases and human nature in uncertain situations.  This field is called behavioral economics and it analyzes a number of different thought patterns in conjunction with risk management and prediction. (Kahneman, 2011; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).  One of their theories is that the possibility of gain will have more influence on a person’s decision than the chance of loss or the utility of the situation.  Kahneman (2011) always emphasizes the need for awareness of biases, and empirical data for predicting outcomes.  Understanding the influence of biases and misconceptions is a means of controlling them.

The problems with cognitive biases is that they also influence decisions in ways that may not be appropriate, cause repeated mistakes because they are habitual, and can cause backlashes when applied to large settings ( Norman & Delfin, 2012).  Biases are painted with a broad brush and left open for interpretation.  In many ways, they are translated as either/or options and lead to miscalculations, racial profiling and hate crimes.  In the emotional climate of the post- 9/11 society, a line has been drawn between the general populace and immigrants.  Immigrants are different and different means they are a threat.  There is a definite linkage between immigration and imminent threat to our society whether as terrorists or part of the drug cartels (Norman & Delfin, 2012 pp. 384-386).  Policy writers need to fully understand the nature of biases, the emotional climate of the culture and how the policies are framed for the public (Norman & Delfin, 2012 ; Kahneman, 2011).

While some biases may not be noticed, Daniel Gilbert hypothesized that there are four situations that will arouse the general public. These are intentional disruptive actions by individuals, an immediate threat to society, rapid change and moral issues (Norman & Delfin, 2012, pp. 378-384).  This will explain why it is easier to focus the public eye on immigration than it is to maintain momentum in regards to global warming (Norman & Delfin, 2012).  Policy makers often use biased judgments as a political tool in the ways they shape their press releases and the issues that they emphasize (Norman & Delfin, 2012).  Thus we have an intense fight against immigrants because they are different and they may be terrorists or belong to the drug cartel.  These attitudes are transferred to the general population and become polarized along with serious issues of racial profiling.

Awareness is the first step in understanding how biases work can show an individual how they apply in a given situation and greater recognition of why they may or may not work (Norman & Delfin, 2013).  This can avoid future problems, as well as repeating past mistakes. Awareness also allows discussion regarding the goal and viability of the approach without a dogmatic adherence to one course of action.  This can actually improve chances of success.  Awareness can also provide insight into past mistakes and aid problem-solving (Norman & Delfin, 2013, p.373).



Braman, S. (2011). Defining information policy. Available from Wayne State University DOAJ Retrieved 8/25/13

Gudmundsson, S. V., and Lechner, C. (2013). Cognitive biases, organization, and entrepreneurial firm survival. European Management Journal, 31(3), 278-294. doi:

Johnson, D. D. P., Blumstein, D. T., Fowler, J. H., & Haselton, M. G. (2013). The evolution of error: error management, cognitive constraints, and adaptive decision-making biases. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28(8), 474-481. doi:

Kahneman, D. (2011). Think Fast/Think Slow (e-book ed.). New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kahneman, D., and Tversky, Amos. (1979). Prospect theory: an analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 33. Retrieved from

Norman, E. R., and Delfin, Rafael. (2012). Wizards under uncertainty: cognitive biases, threat assessment, and misjudgments in policy making. [Critical essay]. Politics & Policy, 40(3), 369+. doi:

Sharek, Z. (2012). Bias in the evaluation of conflict of interest policies. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 40, 368. Retrieved from



  1. Kim Wiljanen / Nov 11 2013


    You might be right. People are very different and they are more alike than they like to think. I liked the Iceland study because it looked at an aspect of human nature. The Gudmundsson article pointed out that certain personalities look for solutions, and they tend to succeed. Others may not adequately analyze their business model or the culture, or ask for the help that they need. These business owners tend to fail. Kahneman gave similar examples from Canada and the United States, although he did not give the outcome.

  2. Kim Wiljanen / Nov 11 2013


    I think bias is unavoidable and Kahneman did also. It frequently determines our point of view, the way we look at a subject and analyze it. It also determines our course of action. Understanding bias is a means of understanding not only your motivations, but the motivations of others.

    Is information bias a good thing? Yes, it teaches caution, it is the way that you look at the world and it helps you navigate through life. It is part of your personality and your emotions. Can it be dangerous? Yes, it can make you so blind that you cannot see beyond your own point of view. If it is unchecked, it can create irreparable damage.

    Awareness of our biases help us recognize our motivations, our reactions and our decisions. Awareness of our biases also helps us understand different points of view even if we cannot accept them. Bridging the differences is building for the future.

    The library profession teaches that we must present a balanced perspective. The idea is to provide books that show all sides of the equation with adequate listings of the pros and cons. This is much like a debate. Ultimately, others will gain their own understanding of the topic.

    Since you mentioned bias in the news – I recently found a title you might like:

    How partisan media polarize America by Matthew Levendusky
    Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, [2013]

  3. Darragh McCurragh / Nov 1 2013

    “study in Iceland” May I suggest that Iceland (or its populace rather) -of all places- seems to significantly differ from the rest of the world, q.v. their stance against their failed banks in the banking crises and their many traditions that are rather unusual. So maybe, just maybe, the findings about cognitive bias might turn up different results elsewhere.

  4. Adam DeWitt / Nov 1 2013

    Biases certain have influence in everyday decisions we make. Whether as individuals or as groups of people, how we think and what we believe influence our actions and influence what our biases are. In Christian philosophy, it is called a person’s worldview–the lens through which an individual views the world and society. Everyday, we see the press’ biases and worldviews through the way the news is portrayed and how the news is commentated. Based on my understanding, Johnson, Blumstein, Fowler and Haselton think bias is acceptable from the perspective of natural selection. On the other hand, the library profession general seems to discourage bias of any kind. Therefore, I have two questions: is information bias a good thing; and if not, are there certain situations in which it is acceptable?

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