Category Archives: Brain/mind

When hindsight is distinctly not beneficial

I’ve seen some disturbing instances of post-purchase rationalisation bias. This bias is what it says it is: it’s the tendency to rationalise a purchase after you’ve made it. The thing is, this bias is a type of choice-supportive bias – that means that when you evaluate a choice in hindsight, you tend to see the choice as better than perhaps it actually was. Maybe you were a bit uncertain about your choice as you were making it, but once it was made – oh no, it was definitely the right choice! It was so incredibly superior to the other option, no doubt about it. In fact, the other option was kind of awful, really. Lucky you’re so good at making awesome decisions!

So the post-purchase rationalisation bias means you tend to highlight the positive attributes of an item you’ve chosen to buy, since you probably consider the choice to have been a good one (otherwise you wouldn’t have made it, right?). That’s not to say that no one ever regrets a purchase, but this bias of the brain means that in most cases, you are more likely to try to see your choice as positive – particularly if the item was expensive.

It seems kind of harmless, since it’s presumably a good thing to make yourself happy with what you’ve ended up with, especially if you’ve invested a lot of money in it. Surely that’s preferable to always doubting your choice or lamenting not choosing the other option. However, the danger comes in not learning from one’s mistakes. If people (maybe me, maybe you, under the right circumstances) are willing to explain away negative aspects of their choices and over-emphasise the positive aspects, they put themselves at risk of making further poor (and expensive) choices in the future.

For example, I’ve seen a person explain away the handle falling off their expensive designer bag quite soon after purchase. They presumably reasoned that the bag must still be great because, well, they chose it and it cost that much, which led them to purchasing another of the same bag – just in a different colour this time. Was that a good decision? Well, it’s not my place to judge, but this bias does seem to lead to not learning from your mistakes – and then paying heftily for it. So if you’re interested in being a thoughtful consumer, maybe try to be as objective as possible when you’re evaluating your choices in hindsight. With this cognitive bias, the benefit of hindsight suddenly seems a bit more wayward and capricious than you would hope for from a so-called “benefit”.

Bothersome biases of the brain: restraint bias

Your brain is rather adept at skewing things in a surprisingly convenient direction – in a lot of ways, it tends to make you think you’re more skilled and more aware than you actually are. Being a little bit self-assured of our beliefs and behaviours is somewhat adaptive and useful – we don’t always want to be cowering in fear and doubt about every little thing in day-to-day life, paralysed by hesitation and skeptical of our ability to succeed in matters large or small. But unfortunately, that little proclivity to over-estimate our own abilities gives rise to another little bias that holds us in thrall when it comes to many different matters, including consuming and spending. That is restraint bias.

Restraint bias is the tendency for people to assume that they’re going to be better at restraining their behaviour than they actually are. This pertains to various realms of assorted impulses, such as hunger, drug-craving and – seemingly likely – purchasing things. You’re over-confident about your ability to restrain yourself when tempted by something you want, and this can lead you to expose yourself to situations where the thing you want is conveniently available. And – surprise surprise – you often can’t resist it when it’s right there in front of you.

This has some very serious implications. For example, in a study by Nordgren and colleagues, published in the research journal Psychological Science in 2009, it was found that ex-smokers with a stronger belief in their own ability to control their impulses are much more likely to relapse into smoking again, precisely because they thought they could resist the temptation and therefore exposed themselves more willingly to the temptation – maybe they let themselves walk past the cigarette counter at a store instead of avoiding it, or maybe they too willingly went to social occasions even when they knew there would be people smoking there.

For perhaps slightly less serious implications, those wanting to curb their purchasing in general might be able to see what they need to do to avoid the consequences of restraint bias. It seems a bit self-evident, but if you don’t want to make needless purchases – don’t go into shops and don’t browse online retail sites. Don’t expose yourself to the temptations. You may think you’ll be able to resist, but the very existence of that opinion might mean you’re inclined to fail.

Bothersome biases of the brain: confirmation bias

The human brain is pretty fancy. A lump of tissue – 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses – with the job of keeping you alive, generating your consciousness, allowing you to perceive and interact with the environment, allowing you to communicate in incredibly complex ways, allowing you to interpret a complex world and the other people in it. So you have to cut it some slack if, sometimes, it uses shortcuts. It uses shortcuts, and it relies on assumptions, and it likes to fit things into neat classifications in order to understand them quickly and effectively. And that can be a little bit of a problem.

The brain is prone to a lot of biases that are the result of the fact that, somehow, in some situations, they are (or were) advantageous. The ability to react quickly to your surroundings and to understand and gauge things efficiently are obviously of use from an evolutionary perspective. But applied to more rarefied, sophisticated contexts, such as complex decision-making in modern society, our brains can be a bit oafish.

One of these biases is confirmation bias – the tendency to only look for, or to over-emphasise, the information that confirms an opinion you already hold, or that you wish to hold. Confirmation bias can bias the way you search for information (like if you’re looking at reviews of a product you’re thinking about buying but you tend to skim over the negative reviews, or you read a couple of positive reviews then stop looking for further reviews) or it can bias the way you interpret information (so if a review of a product was neutral or vague, you might somehow manage to convince yourself that it was actually a little bit positive, or you might read a negative review but then decide, for whatever reason, that the author is probably actually a raving idiot).

Obviously, confirmation bias can effect your decision-making process when it comes to purchases. Consuming responsibly means (to me, at least) trying to make good decisions about purchases in an effort to minimise wastefulness and redundancy and to maximise use and longevity. The first step in minimising the effect of confirmation bias on a decision involves being aware that confirmation bias exists – so that’s accomplished now. It requires effort, but you really can force yourself to evaluate information more objectively – not purely objectively (that is simply not possible) – and improving your ability to be objective, by however much, can only be a good thing.

  • Make yourself read those negative reviews rather than ignoring them or only giving them a cursory glance. Read that contrary information and try to give it due consideration.
  • Pay attention and learn about your own tendencies and then try to navigate them (for example, I have a tendency to ignore information contrary to my beliefs if it’s poorly written or contains bad spelling, because I’ll think something like “Oh, this person can’t even spell ‘burgundy’, why should I listen to anyone who spells it ‘burgandy’?” but really what I’m doing is letting a cognitive bias skew my thinking).
  • Keep asking yourself whether the conclusion you keep coming to is just a bit too convenient, given that it was the conclusion you wanted to come to.
  • Discuss it with an uninvested party (friends, family members, people on an internet forum – whoever might be more impartial than you).
  • Just just keep thinking about your thinking. Do some meta-thinking. You can really learn a lot from it.

More on other cognitive biases in future posts.