Visual Guide to Cognitive Biases

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One term often heard in relation to sustainability, and any other kind of change, is ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was discussed in a recent post, Motivating Sustainable Behaviour:

Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions simultaneously. If something conflicts with an existing belief or value, people will be more likely to move out of the discomfort by rejecting the new information or request than changing their belief or value.

For example, if someone who identifies as being concerned about biodiversity and species loss discovers that their favourite dinner fish is on the endangered list, they may choose to ignore or not act on the information because they can’t bear to give up the meal they love the most.

Crux is just pleased that there are a number of fair trade and organic options for chocolate.

An easier, simpler term for cognitive dissonance is the ‘Say-Do Gap’ – what an individual says is different to what they actually do. Other terms are the Value-Action Gap, and the Attitude-Behaviour Gap – ‘Say-Do’ is just the simplest term with the least syllables.

This bias alone is a tough one to tackle, however, cognitive dissonance is only one of a large group of biases.

Great, right? As if cognitive dissonance was not enough, there’s a whole stack of the things lurking about, waiting to trip up the communication efforts of change agents!

A close relative of cognitive dissonance is confirmation bias, which is:

…a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

Learning a little bit about these can help you to identify and choose communications approaches that effectively respond to the bias.

But first of all, what exactly are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are psychological tendencies that cause the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions. Such biases are thought to be a form of ‘cognitive shortcut’, often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory. These biases are a common outcome of human thought, and often drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence. The phenomenon is studied in cognitive science and social psychology.

Further to previous posts concerning tools to help change agents in thinking and practice – Know Your Logical Fallacies, and Pattern Language – there is now also a ‘ready reckoner’ for getting your head around the taxonomy of Cognitive Biases.

The Royal Society of Account Planning have developed a guide to help people get to grips with all the different cognitive biases in a fun way, designed to introduce the different types of biases and make them easier to memorise.

visual contents page from guide with icons for four categories of bias

The guide is comprised of four categories of biases, and examples in each group. All the examples are represented with an icon, summarised in once sentence, and most are hyperlinked to a Wikipedia reference.

Here is an example of each category – no doubt you will spot the relevance to sustainability and your work!


Social Biases:

screenshot of social bias - 'projection'; unconsciously assuming others share similar thoughts, values, beliefs


Memory Biases:

screenshot of memory bias - 'consistency'; incorrectly remembering one's past attitudes and behaviours as resembling present attitudes and behaviours

Decision Making Biases

screenshot of decision making bias - 'hyperbolic discounting'; people's preference for payoffs sooner rather than later, focusing on short term over longer term


Probability/Belief Biases

screenshot of probability/belief bias - 'hawthorne effect', the tendency of people to behave differently when observed

Crux confesses to being guilty of planning fallacy – the underestimation of task completion times.

Note: the content – derived from the Cognitive Biases wiki – is still a work in progress in terms of comprehensiveness and accuracy. The guide should also be viewed as an introduction and pathway to the works of professionals in this field. Regardless, it is a useful introduction to the layperson.

Do you recognise some of the biases in the guide? Are you aware of using any yourself?

Which biases do you think are the most important ones for sustainability change agents to be putting their attention to?

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  1. […] It’s likely to be a combination of all three – people switch off because mentally processing data is extra work in a world overloaded with visual and sonic information and daily work and family demands; it doesn’t create a shift because its appealing to the rational part of the brain; and it may often be clashing with other deeply held values. […]

  2. […] But there are times when we need to be careful of letting our ‘shortcuts’ and our biases substitute for deeper thinking. Logic is a tool for helping our thinking processes in order to […]

  3. […] the issue raised by their message, they are reacting to someone placing them in a state of cognitive dissonance – or where their view of the world is suddenly interrupted and made uncomfortable by new […]

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