Alex Poultney

29 January 2024

Strategist’s Digest: Are there too many behavioural biases? 

Researchers conducting a literature review suggest that several well-known behavioural biases all stem from the same delusion

Photo by Nik on Unsplash

Toward Parsimony in Bias Research: A Proposed Common Framework of Belief-Consistent Information Processing for a Set of Biases

By Aileen Oeberst and Roland Imhoff. Published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Give it to me in one sentence.

Many recognised behavioural biases might just be different shades of one heuristic.

Give me a little more detail.

Researchers conducted a literature review to explore whether several behavioural biases were in fact just different expressions of the confirmation bias — our tendency to see things in a way that matches our existing beliefs.

For example, the self-serving bias — the tendency to attribute one's successes to internal factors but failures to external ones — is driven by the fundamental belief that ‘I am good’. Meanwhile, in-group bias — the tendency to view people from a shared group with irrational favourability — is explained by the belief that ‘my group is good’. The underlying beliefs are different but both are linked by the same habit of processing information in a way that confirms our existing views.

Some biases could even stem from same belief. For example, the spotlight effect — people overestimating how much others pay attention to them — relies on people believing that their experience is a reasonable one. Essentially, they think, ‘If I am this aware of something, then others must be able to notice it too’.

People’s belief that their experience is reasonable could also explain the false consensus bias — the tendency for people to overestimate how shared their opinions are. The authors suggest that these two biases only differ on the outcomes being assessed, eg. ‘Just like me, they must be focusing on that spot on my face’ versus ‘Just like me, most people think it’s unlucky to walk over three drains’.

We never process information as blank slates, argue the authors. Beliefs always guide and interfere. We not only look for belief-confirming information, but we regularly incorrectly perceive new information to conform to what we already think. We show this bias even when we have no stakes in the outcome, and in situations where we are actively encouraged to be unbiased, like in court.

Why is this interesting?

Many behavioural biases overlap and can be highly context-specific. This makes it difficult for businesses to take these nudges and successfully apply them to situations other than those they are directly studied in. However, if these biases can be attributed to the same underlying processes it may enable us to understand them better, and more accurately predict the different contexts they would work in.

Any weaknesses?

So far the model is only supported by a literature review. It would need to be tested before any major changes can be made to how biases are labelled and organised in academic literature.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, and it’s free.

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