The Gambler’s Fallacy and Other Biases of the Brain

If you’re feeling cynical about people and our foolish ways, a place to go to buttress your mood is Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases. It describes more than 150 ways in which our thinking systematically deviates from objective observation and rational thinking. It’s a humbling list, a reminder that the evolution of our brains has left us with some thought processes that, though useful in certain situations, don’t make it easy for us to see the world as it actually is.

Here’s a sampling. Quotations are from Wikipedia.

Gambler’s Fallacy: “I’ve flipped heads with this coin five times consecutively, so the chance of tails coming out on the sixth flip is much greater than heads.” No, it’s not. The odds are 50-50 for every flip, regardless of the length of any previous sequence that produced one result. Applicable to apparent batting slumps and other so-called streaks of good or bad luck or performance.

False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” I’m sure you’ve all found this to be true.



Actor-Observer Bias: If you cut me off in traffic, you’re a complete jerk. I blame you and your rotten personality. But if I make a quick turn in front of you, I had good reasons for doing so and my character remains untarnished. On the whole, we’re not very perceptive about our own characteristics and motivations—or those of other people. We are, however, for evolutionary reasons, quick to identify whatever might be a threat and attribution errors create plenty of misunderstandings and conflict.

IKEA Effect: “The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result.”

Illusion of Truth Effect: “A person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.” Perhaps this has been a safety measure for our species in the long run.

Reminiscence Bump: “The recalling of more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than personal events from other lifetime periods.” Perhaps the vivid imprinting of our first mistakes and successes has helped us survive. In general, our memories are biased towards thinking highly of ourselves.

Illusion of Transparency: “People overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.” Such overestimating gives us confidence about forming social bonds. If we were realistic about how difficult it is for one person to know another, we would be less likely to go to the trouble or take the risk.

These and other biases have either served our species in the distant past or result from the brain’s limited processing capacity. Since they won’t go away anytime soon, we have to compensate for them as best we can. Wisdom often amounts to an effort to do just that: if we strive to be humble, nonjudgmental, and cautious, our cognition may be more on target.



3 thoughts on “The Gambler’s Fallacy and Other Biases of the Brain

  1. One of the pleasures of teaching Interpersonal communication has been the awareness of these biases and attempting strategies to manage them. Knowing what they are makes little difference in their power to delude us. Mindfulness exercises seem to help with snap judgements and other reactive forces. Just pausing and reflecting before talking can offer a space for choices. Compulsive reactions seem prevalent in our sped up and info flow
    Society. Anxiety was the number one complaint among students. About what? Everything! The reduction of time alone and of spaces for solitude has in a sense marooned the young in a maelstrom of minutia. Perhaps along with our older evolutionary habits ,we are also experiencing Worlds that have no familiar touchstone for our hunter/ gatherer tribal sensibilities. Attribution errors seem over the top today. Massive media distortion fuels fundamentalist perception that the other is to blame. Hence many of our violent eras( errors). In some ways we have become more primitive in our cognitive operations in order to stabilize ourselves in the maelstrom of contemporary life. Too many people, too much noise, too many choices, too many voices( in and out of our heads), and ironically a diminishing of true resources on an unpredented scale. I know you all feel this way.

    • “In some ways we have become more primitive in our cognitive operations in order to stabilize ourselves in the maelstrom of contemporary life.” Good point; I see this all around. But it seems there is some hope in that you suggest at some earlier time we were *less* primitive than now–less rat race, more patience, more diplomacy of all kinds? And we can certainly imagine (which is no guarantee) for the future, as you have, actions and attitudes that are more reasoned.

      But about the young especially: between the media/digital blitz of the last decade and the socio/political pendulum that swings so fast, I can understand their anxiety being about “everything.”



  2. Pingback: How Our Brains Often Get Things Wrong, by Brock Haussamen | Humanistic Paganism


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