Information vs Affirmation (& how to distinguish between the two)

Time to Read: 3 mins
A cognitive bias describes a pattern of thinking that deviates from logical and sound reasoning.
While completing my degree in 2014, I still remember spending an entire class (3hrs) looking at the cognitive biases and how they effect organisations, management and decision making. It was the first time I had ever come across cognitive biases and I found the topic to be fascinating.  I started to reflect on my past decisions and wondered how much of my thinking was influenced by cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases was popularised by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman; they dispelled the belief that in business, humans made decisions based on evidence and logic. For their works they Kahneman (illustrated above) was awarded a Nobel prize in 2002.
Here are just two of the example to keep in mind as you continue to read:
  • Confirmation Bias:  The tendency to find information that only supports or confirms our point of view. And
  • Ingroup Bias: The tendency to to favour those that are in the same group as us.
The dangers of biases
By its very nature cognitive biases are unavoidable; in that, when they occur we are unaware that they are occurring. As we can’t  consciously control cognitive biases from happening, the only thing that we can do is be aware that they exist, and the situation where they are most likely to occur.
Having biases within ourselves is one thing.  But having biases in the technology that we use is something that we rarely think about.  Just as human bias is not immediately detectable, neither are the biases that exist it the technology that we use. To make sense of this topic I want to separate technology into two categories:
  1. Technology that we control and
  2. those the we don’t.
Technology that we can control 
This category describes technology that we know is accurate and true, in essence it’s technology without any biases.  As an example when we use a tool such as a calculator, a excel worksheet or even a map to get directions on our phones.  


When using these types of technologies we are confident that the information is real and that because information is in plain sight; you can identify street names and recognise building on a map.  You can see and understand the logic behind a calculator and control the formulas on a excel spreadsheet.

And technology that we don’t
Then we have technology that we don’t control.  Some examples of these technologies are large social media sites, search engines and intelligence assistance like Siri or Alexa.
At times (more often than we think) these technology will try to make decision on our behalf, they predict want we want to see and hide what we don’t.  Behind an attractive, simple and user friendly UI is an enormous amount of complexity which is hidden away from us.  Hidden, in the same way as our own cognitive biases.
A design problem?
Cognitive biases is something that we can’t control, but with regards to technology, this is something that we can control. The problem doesn’t lie so much with the technology, but in it’s design and design is something we have conscious control of.
Whether we are designers or not, at a minimum we should all be aware that biases do exist in some of the technology that we use and how they could be influencing our thinking and understanding.
Information vs Affirmation
Take some time to think about the two cognitive biases that were mentioned earlier…
When we are using tools that we control (i.e. that have no bias) we can be sure that the we are getting Information.
When we are using technology where biases exist, we are more likely to be receiving information that confirms our points of view and from sources that reflect a similiar opinions that we hold.  Whether our views are right or wrong, what we are getting is Affirmation.
I just think it’s important that we can distinguish between the two…

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