10 'Caveman Thinking' Biases That Could Hold You Back
Last Updated: Oct 01, 2013
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David McRaney, author of “You Are Now Less Dumb,” has studied and written extensively about cognitive biases and calls them ”predictable patterns of thought that we unconsciously fall back on in the best of situations to help us to navigate complicated, nuanced decisions and conclusions, often by making the answers seem simple and intuitive even though they aren't.” McRaney believes that these biases are probably built into the brain to help people avoid a period of contemplation that our ancestors couldn't afford. With no saber-toothed tigers, unlike our ancestors, we can think through our decisions. Recognizing and overcoming these caveman biases can be a key factor in improving your health. Read on and find out if any of these mental mistakes pose a bump on the road to a fitter and healthier you.
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BIAS #1: CHOICE SUPPORTIVE BIAS
Choice Supportive Bias is the tendency to look back and credit positive occurrences to an option one has selected. For example, on New Year’s Day, an unhealthy person joins a gym, cuts out processed foods, watches less television and gets more sleep. Months later, when they’re feeling great and someone asks how they did it, they might attribute their success to what took the most effort. This individual may believe it was the daily gym visits that put them on the healthy track, letting all the other positive changes slip and ending up right back where they started last January. Make sure to always keep an eye on the changes you make. Changing your diet might seem easier than going to the gym, but it is just as important -- and sometimes more essential to your results.
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BIAS #2: HYPERBOLIC DISCOUNTING
Hyperbolic Discounting is the tendency for people to prefer immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs. Hyperbolic discounting is what happens when the payoff of eating a candy bar now is valued more than the payoff of looking great in a swimsuit next summer. To anyone who has studied success, it should come as no surprise that the ability to strive successfully for distant rewards is one of the cornerstones of health. The ability to delay gratification is also associated with higher levels of education and income. There are many methods for delaying gratification. For example: Researchers say acknowledging a craving for a snack and mentally postponing it to an unspecified time in the future makes it less likely the snack ever will be consumed.
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BIAS #3: RESTRAINT BIAS
Restraint bias is the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to control impulsive behavior. It is especially problematic because an unrealistically high sense of self-control can lead one into greater exposure to temptation, which can result in more impulsive behavior followed by a sense of defeat. Research shows that once a person's willpower is depleted, they’re more likely to engage in inadvisable behavior. One way to combat restraint bias is to remove temptation from one’s line of site or even one’s home. Don’t want to eat candy? Then don’t keep candy in the house. Cutting down on alcohol also helps. Some researchers (though not all) say humans have a limited amount of self-control. They say it can be depleted, like so many bags of candy.
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BIAS #4: ANCHORING
Anchoring is the tendency to over-rely on one piece of information when making decisions. All of these biases are rooted in evolution, from a time when humans lacked the time, intelligence or security to make informed decisions. With the Internet, libraries and access to physicians and nutritionists, there is no excuse for that today. Food manufacturers sometimes manipulate consumers with anchoring. By slapping the words “low fat” on the outside of the box, the manufacturer has planted a healthy association in the mind of the consumer before she has touched the product. The product may not be healthy, but the words “low fat” make a positive first impression, and now it’s up to the consumer to disprove the claim, which can be difficult to do on the spot.
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BIAS #5: CONFIRMATION BIAS
Confirmation bias is the tendency to prove one’s assumptions are correct by looking for confirmation of preconceived notions instead of testing those assumptions. McRaney calls this the most dangerous bias. This bias determines what most people read, watch, buy and who they accept as new friends or partners. How can confirmation bias affect health? It limits one’s exposure to potentially healthy lifestyles. A vegetarian who is struggling with weight loss or lack of energy might find success on a radically different diet (such as vegan or Paleo), but that can only happen if he or she seeks new information to determine if vegetarianism is in fact the best diet regimen for them. The first step in beating back all biases is awareness.
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BIAS #6: EXTINCTION BURST
Extinction burst is the tendency to revert to old behaviors while new behaviors are being established. For example: A guy gets serious about his health, avoids bad foods and behaviors and notices he’s forming good routines. Then, one night in a bout of weakness, he devours a pint of ice cream. If he stops receiving rewards or punishments in situations that used to provide those things (refrigerators, bars) then his old behaviors will be extinguished. Just as a behavior is about to flicker out forever, his brain makes a crazed Hail Mary effort to bring it back, and that is called an extinction burst. The good news is he can overcome it by expecting it to happen and reminding himself that he is stronger than his extinction burst.
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BIAS #7: UNIT BIAS
Unit bias is the sense that a particular portion of food is acceptable. The term was coined by Penn State researchers who discovered that portion size, as well as plate and utensil size, influenced how much people ate. The researchers used soda as an example. A 24-ounce bottle of soda -- the kind one might find at any convenience store -- is viewed by the brain as a single serving, even though it technically contains at least two servings of soda. Researchers say unit bias is the result of culturally designated norms, which explains why the French eat less than Americans. Thankfully, unit bias has an obvious remedy: smaller portion sizes, smaller plates and smaller silverware can help one create a new normal and still leave one satisfied.
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BIAS #8: AVAILABILITY CASCADE
Availability cascade explains how a piece of information becomes conventional wisdom. It’s what happens when an insight seems to explain a complex process simply, and the insight becomes popular because of its simplicity. For example, consider “fat is bad for your heart.” This idea was widely circulated starting in the 1980s, and since then health experts have discovered that certain types of fat are good for health while fats that were once thought harmful, like saturated fats, do not pose as grave a health risk as non-fatty foods such as processed carbohydrates. But “fat is bad for your heart” sounds intuitive, whereas “bread is bad for your heart” does not. But fat is just one example; there have been others.
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BIAS #9: BANDWAGON EFFECT
Maybe you’ve heard this phrase: “Fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong.” That’s the Bandwagon Effect. In a nutshell, it means that the more people who adopt an idea, trend or fad, the more likely it is for the individual to do so as well. The problem is that the Bandwagon Effect substitutes your own judgment and reasoning with the decisions or whims of others. Imagine a time when smoking anywhere indoors was not frowned upon or serving processed foods for dinner every night was acceptable. When it comes to health, substituting another’s judgment for your own judgment can be problematic because no one knows their health, body and mind better than you. Do your research, talk to your health professional and make the right decisions for you.
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BIAS #10: PROCRASTINATION
Procrastination’s foundation is present bias, which is the tendency to believe what one thinks, wants and feels will not change. “We believe the person we imagine ourselves to be in the future will be motivated to work out, eat well, meditate,” McRaney said. “You buy stuff and make plans thinking that the future -- you will take what you have prepared and use it to get fit. When you finally arrive there, you just repeat the behavior, making more plans for a “future you,” and on it goes. The only way out of the loop is to accept that the urge to procrastinate never goes away. You'll need to come up with a way to prevent yourself from failing in the future by making it difficult for the person you will be later to procrastinate.” Nike might have put it best: “Just do it.”
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you susceptible to any of these biases? Acknowledging a bias is the first step in defeating it. And there’s comfort in knowing you are not alone in succumbing to these invisible forces. Please share your stories of a time you fell victim to one of these biases. Or better yet share a strategy you used to defeat one. If you’ve experienced it, then someone else has, too. Leave a comment below and let us know.
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