Lesson 3: Relationship of Media to Cognitive Biases

What Are Cognitive Biases?

Cognitive biases are unconscious errors in thinking that arise from problems related to memory, attention, and other mental mistakes. Related to this idea are heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that facilitate problem-solving and probability judgements.  Our brain can only handle so much information, so these cognitive shortcuts help us avoid information overload. However, this can often lead us into making irrational decisions or judgements due to the fact that we are often easily influenced by subconscious factors that are a result of our life experiences, preferences, and beliefs. You may see these biases referred to as “cognitive distortions” when they result in irrational or problematic thinking and behavior. 

There are many cognitive biases, and they can be generally divided into these 4 groups:

1. Too Much Information

  • – We notice things already primed in our memory 

  • – Bizarre, out of the ordinary, or visually striking things stick out more 

  • – We notice when something has changed, and we notice flaws in others more easily than we notice flaws in ourselves  

  • – We are drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs (confirmation bias)

2. Not Enough Meaning

    • – We tend to find stories and patterns even when looking at sparse data  

    • – We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities and prior histories  

    • – We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of, as better  

    • – We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about  

    • – We think we know what other people are thinking  

    • – We project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future 


3. What should I remember?

      • – We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact  

      • – We discard specifics to form generalities  

      • – We reduce events and information to their key elements  

      • – We store memories differently based on how we each experience them


4. Need to Act Fast

        • – We favor simple-looking options and complete information over complex and ambiguous options  

        • – To avoid mistakes, we aim to preserve autonomy and group status, and avoid irreversible decisions  

        • – To get things done, we tend to complete things we’ve invested time and energy in

        • – To stay focused, we favor the immediate, relatable thing in front of us  

        • – To act, we must be confident we can make an impact and feel what we do is important 

    • To learn more about the different cognitive biases in each of these groups, check out the Cognitive Bias Codex

    • Social media content preys on these cognitive biases to sustain user engagement, and these biases in turn make us vulnerable to spreading misinformation.  


    • Take 5-10 minutes to browse through your social media and try to make note of any content that seems to be preying on the cognitive biases we’ve discussed. Is the content on your feed already in alignment with your existing views and opinions? Are there multiple perspectives being expressed, or does your feed feel more like an echo chamber? If you notice biased or misleading content, try to identify the specific tactics the source is using, and brainstorm ways that their post could be altered to be more honest, inclusive, and reputable.