How to avoid cognitive bias in your writing

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The human brain is powerful, but it also makes mistakes. Scientists consider some of these mistakes to be what they call cognitive biases…

Is cognitive bias harming your writing? Even if you are unfamiliar with the term, the answer is almost certainly yes.

Cognitive bias, which is studied in psychology and behavioural economics, refers to mistakes in reasoning. Our brains are wired to perform in certain ways and this “programming” can lead us to perform actions that hurt rather than help us. 

Over the past two years, I’ve written columns on the seven different types of cognitive bias that are most likely to trip up writers. I thought it might be helpful for me to summarize them here, so you can have access to them all in one place. 

The planning fallacy  

This concept is exceptionally important to writers and you’re likely intuitively familiar with it already: Everything — especially writing — takes far longer to accomplish than you ever thought remotely possible.  

This highly predictable error occurs for a number of reasons: we tend to be overly optimistic when planning; we engage in wishful thinking; we tend to overestimate our own abilities; we become carried away with our desire to impress others; and, we believe it’s always better to do everything faster. 

My post offers five practical ways to resist all these problems but let me highlight two here:

  • Always picture HOW you are going to do your writing: The simple act of visualizing the time of day and location where you are going to write has a dramatic impact on your success, according to a study performed in the Netherlands. Researchers speculate that this visualization helps give writers a stronger commitment to follow through.
  • If you miss your deadline, don’t let yourself be too anchored to your original plan: Imagine you’d promised to submit your paper (or story) by 5 pm today, but you’d wildly underestimated the amount of time this project was going to take. You’re more likely to want to increase your time by the minimal amount — say by one day — even if what you really need is double or triple that amount of time. This natural human tendency leads us to make insufficient adjustments as we go along — and inevitably, this stresses us out and further disappoints our supervisors or clients. 

For more information about the planning fallacy, go here.

False hope syndrome 

Do you set expectations of yourself that are way too high? We all do that. In fact, the problem is so common it even has two names: False hope syndrome or BHAG bias. (BHAG stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goals — pronounced: Bee Hag). 

While BHAGs sound impressive, attractive and compelling, they are seldom achievable. And sticking to them is likely to make you feel discouraged and inept.

My post gives you four ways you can establish a more realistic view of the world by suggesting that you:

1-Figure out what’s gone wrong in the past and use that to guide your future planning.

2-Clarify your values: If your goals conflict with your values in any way, then you’re much more likely to self-sabotage.

3-Ask yourself what feelings might arise as you work toward your goal. Then, plan in advance for how to deal with them, so they won’t get in your way.

4-Commit to changing your behavior so that it matches your values. For example, if you value writing but your other obligations (whether family- or work-related) often get in the way of that writing, then figure out how you can do both. This almost-inevitably will result in spending a smaller amount of time on some of what you do, but smaller is always better than nothing.

For more information about false hope syndrome, go here.

Sunk cost fallacy

Human beings are designed to find the threat of losses to be a much more significant motivator than the promise of gains, even big ones. For example, research has shown that when people are offered a chance to accept or reject a gamble, most of them refuse to make a bet unless the possible payoff is about double the potential loss.

The big downside of the tendency to protect what we have, is that we try to avoid change at most costs. That job you have — the one you hate — seems to be so much more secure than the iffy prospect of becoming a freelancer. The hundreds of hours you’ve spent becoming a travel writer seem too important to give up, even in the face of a global pandemic that’s hugely curtailed the travel industry.

If sunk costs are holding you back with your writing (or with anything else in your life), here are four steps you can take:

1-Document what you learned from the project/situation/relationship: Even if the cost is sunk, you can continue to reap the benefits of that investment, which should help you move on.

2-Analyze your choices: Now is the time to really figure out why you invested in a sunk cost in the first place. Try asking questions like:

  • How is holding on still serving me, or affecting me?
  • What might happen when I let go of this situation?
  • Which risk is greater — moving forward or hanging on?

3-Focus on the best-case scenario: Fear of the unknown is powerful, so when you feel ready to let go of sunk costs, focus on the good things that are likely to happen. How you think will influence what you experience, so stay positive — while, of course, planning diligently for your future success.

4-Take a deep breath and let it go: Yes, you will be losing something but without the loss, you will miss the opportunity for future gain — which is only a bigger loss.

For more information about sunk cost fallacy, go here.

Information bias 

This problem occurs when you believe you need more information before you can act. This feeling causes you to delay getting started on projects such as writing assignments. Here are five ways to deal with it: 

1-Understand that knowledge grows daily. The size of the digital universe is doubling every two years and human- and machine-generated data are experiencing a ten-times faster growth rate than traditional business data. There is no such thing as perfect information. Don’t look for it. Set reasonable limits for yourself. 

2-Don’t use research as a form of procrastination. As a general rule of thumb, your research should take no more than 40% of the total time you spend on your writing project. Give yourself a specific time limit (usually measured in minutes, hours or days — not weeks or months) and then hold yourself to it. 

3-Take advantage of a research diary. Such a diary should be a home for your thoughts, feelings and opinions about the research of others. Keeping such a diary (here’s how) will make it easier for you to start forming your own opinions about the work of others. 

4-Use promissory notes. This trick has you write notes directly into your text, reminding yourself about facts you need to double-check (or learn for the first time) later. For example, you might write: Check theory. Check citation. Check spelling. Check year. I know these jobs seem shamefully easy but, likely, these “20-second-tasks” more typically take anywhere from 20 minutes to twenty hours.  Save all of your checking and confirming for the end. 

5-Do more research, later. There is no Tsar of Research lurking over your shoulder designating how much research you can do and when you must do it. You have the ability to make your own rules. Start writing as soon as you can, and if you need to look up more stuff, later, do it then.

For more information about information bias, go here.

Survivorship bias 

This bias is the tendency to ignore failures that aren’t easily visible to you. Writers are particularly vulnerable to survivorship bias when it comes to publishing. 

If, for example, we consider the sales figures of Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, we assume it’s relatively easy to be successful as an author. And even if we look at more than the  wildly successful brand-name writers, our attention is likely to be drawn by people like Douglas Stuart, whose first book was the best-selling and award-winning Shuggie Bain or Stephanie Danler, author of the big-advance earning Sweetbitter — forgetting that they are still unicorns, and not the norm.

If you want to escape survivorship bias take these two steps: 

First, seek out stories of failure. Try to learn from people who started on the same path as you and didn’t make it. What would they have done differently if they could do it again? What can you do differently to escape the same problem they suffered from?

Second, if you are pursuing writing to make money make sure that it’s feasible in your genre. Just because some people become astronauts and movie stars doesn’t mean that everyone can. Books are an especially challenging place to make money. But if you can support yourself with teaching (highly feasible), corporate writing (very feasible) or blogging (also feasible) perhaps you can write books for your own satisfaction.

For more information about survivorship bias, go here.

Recency bias 

Also known as the peak-end rule, this is the human tendency to remember recent events over more distant ones. 

Of course, this is not a problem if your most recent writing experience has been thrilling, rewarding or inspiring. But I’ve worked with many writers who’ve exhibited a response somewhat like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to the job of putting words on the page. Why? A teacher, a boss or a supervisor said something indelibly hurtful or mean to them, and they never recovered from it. The thought has then percolated at the back of their minds, sometimes for years, and it still haunts them every time they try to write. I call this recency bias on steroids. 

Recency bias — whether it’s really recent, or something that’s accumulated over many years — needn’t doom you to unhappiness. Professional help can allow you to overcome these past demons and learn how to write with comfort once again. 

For more information about recency bias, go here.

Progress bias 

Progress bias is the act of over-stating or over-estimating positive actions while downplaying negative ones. In other words, we give ourselves too much credit for the good things we’ve done and ignore or downplay the not-so-good ones. 

If you don’t want progress bias to derail your writing, always require yourself to focus on the larger picture — how you are performing each week or month, not just that particular hour or day. To make this analysis possible, I have two other suggestions: 

  • Make sure your daily goal is small enough. Many people fail at writing because they try to bite off huge, overwhelming chunks of time for each day: often, an hour or more. That’s just a formula for feeling overwhelmed! Instead, start with just 15 minutes. 
  • Track your work. Here’s a link to a free tracking form on my website. I suggest you download it and start using it every day. Putting your achievement in writing will allow you to celebrate what you’ve done and will call you to task about what you’ve failed to do.

For more information about progress bias, go here.

And to learn more about other forms of cognitive bias, you can go here or here.  


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Which forms of cognitive bias affect your writing? How do you deal with them? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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