Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Cognitive Bias

People generally believe that they are mostly rational in their thinking, decisions, and actions. But even the smartest and best educated people often commit cognitive errors as they make financial, medical, personal and ethical decisions. These errors in thinking, also called cognitive bias, affect all people in virtually every situation.

For example, physicians must be aware of the error of overconfidence bias as they make diagnoses which could cause them to insufficiently value other doctors’ opinions. Likewise, physicians (and everyone else) must watch out for confirmation bias, which is the tendency people have to process new information in a way that is heavily influenced by their existing beliefs.

The anchoring effect is another bias in thinking whereby people’s initial focus on a particular fact or number means that they fail to properly adjust their judgments as new and different information arises. There is also the cognitive error of overgeneralization, which is the tendency to jump to a broad conclusion based on a single piece of evidence.

People are influenced in differing degrees by these (and many other) cognitive biases. Studies show that some errors in thinking can be moderated with education. For example, physicians can learn to recognize cognitive biases and so reduce their diagnostic mistakes.

But even with effort, none of us will escape cognitive errors altogether. Knowing your brain is biased is critical to making it work better for you, and everyone around you.

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Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is the tendency people have to seek out information and use it in ways that advance their self-interest. In other words, people often unconsciously make decisions that serve themselves in ways that other people might view as indefensible or unethical.

Studies show that we can easily see how the self-serving bias affects others’ actions, but we have difficulty realizing how it affects our own.

For example, doctors tend to believe that they are immune from the influence of gifts they receive from pharmaceutical companies. But studies show those gifts have a significant effect on what medications doctors prescribe. One study found that 64% of doctors believed that the freebies they received from pharmaceutical companies influenced other doctors. However, only 16% of doctors thought it affected their own actions.

So, the self-serving bias often blinds us to the ways in which we are prejudice in favor of ourselves. Indeed, it can cause even the most well-intentioned of us to completely overlook our own bad actions.

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Bounded Ethicality

Bounded ethicality is the idea that our ability to make ethical choices is often limited or restricted because of internal and external pressures.

Most people are usually ethical, but not completely so. Just like people are generally rational, but not as completely logical as Spock from Star Trek. Our ability to be ethical seems to have limits.

For example, outside pressures, such as the tendency to conform to the actions of those around us, can make it hard to do the right thing.  So can internal biases, such as the self-serving bias, which often causes us to subconsciously favor ourselves at the expense of others.

It’s important to understand that everyone is bounded ethically, even Mother Teresa. Indeed, we are all susceptible to the cognitive biases and organizational or social pressures that limit our abilities to make ethical decisions.

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Behavioral Ethics

Behavioral ethics is the study of why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Its teachings arise from research in fields such as behavioral psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology.

Behavioral ethics is different from traditional philosophy. Instead of focusing on how people ought to behave, behavioral ethics studies why people act as they do. Arguably, it is more useful to understand our own motivations than to understand the philosophy of Aristotle.

Research in behavioral ethics finds that people are far from completely rational. Most ethical choices are made intuitively, by feeling, not after carefully analyzing a situation. Usually, people who make unethical decisions are unconsciously influenced by internal biases, like the self-serving bias, by outside pressures, like the pressure to conform, and by situational factors that they do not even notice.

So, behavioral ethics seeks to understand why even people with the best intentions can make poor ethical choices.

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