Science | Irrational Science – the limits of Cognitive Bias

We’ve all had it happen to us, haven’t we? Your friends make an obscure reference to some DJ they heard in Croatia and you happen to hear them your iPod and the radio the next day. This is all despite the fact you swear you’ve never downloaded their music or heard of them in the first place.

Or perhaps you had a particularly crazy night at Fruity and that guy you saw through your beer goggles who seemed alright suddenly pops up everywhere round campus! Fear not, these coincidences can be explained. Cognitive bias is a condition all humans suffer from, limiting and inhibiting our ability to rationalise. It is when we make inferences or decisions from information presented to us in a seemingly illogical fashion.

A cognitive bias may be influenced by memories or social behaviour. Maybe you went to Fruity that night because all of your housemates were going, even though you hate it with a passion (the bandwagon effect). You may have heard it was going to be good tonight only because one course mate said so (the illusion of truth effect) and that boy about campus you think is stalking you is actually part of your frequency illusion, as was the reason you noticed that DJ on your iPod. There is no definite explanation as to why these cognitive biases occur, however it is believed it is due to the ‘mental shortcuts’ our brains make processing information, motivation, emotion and social influence.

Not only does cognitive bias affect our day to day lives but also the stability of stock markets, products, services and political policy. Neo-classical economic theory assumed that human beings were rational and decisions were made based upon unbiased methods. Such orthodoxy was challenged when scientists Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, began to explore and attempt to explain why humans make such irrational decisions contrary to the current economic models and if these irrationalities are themselves predictable. Smith established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis to understanding human motivation, intercalating the two disciplines of science and economics.

In the court room we ask jury members to think rationally and ignore bias. Conversely how can jury members be expected to discount biases which they may be completely unaware of themselves. Cognitive bias may also limit the acceptance of scientific advances and technology, through superstition and other irrationalities.  So how do we prevent such an effect or at least recognise it on a personal level? Studies show education and intelligence are no shield to it. The cause of our bias seems to be so innate that we will always be unable to correctly identify it, a catch 22 if there was one.


Camilla Middleton

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