What Insights Can We Gain From an Evolutionary Perspective on Cognitive Bias?

Round out this Pathway with an evolutionary perspective on cognitive bias.


Most literature on cognitive biases frames them as limitations or failures of the human mind, suggesting an inability to keep up with the world. There is, however, a subsection of psychologists who contend that this consensus is flawed and requires reframing. From an evolutionary perspective, they say, it is more appropriate to consider cognitive biases as design features. That is, our minds were either designed or have evolved to work the way they do, and underpinning all this is the human instinct for survival.

When evolutionary psychologists say that our minds are ‘adaptively rational,’ it means that the human mind has, over millennia, adapted to recurrent problems our ancestors faced – in a word, survival; but specifically, food security, outsider threat, and sexual reproduction. Our brains adapted, but not toward ‘rationality’ as most cognitive psychologists see it. The human mind was not optimized for maximizing profits, solving logic problems, or truth seeking. Thus, if we judge human thinking based on such metrics, we should not be surprised that our brains will appear flawed.

A fish climbing a tree

Albert Einstein is often misquoted as saying, *”Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by the ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”* Doesn’t the same apply to the human brain? Having evolved over millennia to adapt to our ancestors’ problems, it is now being judged through a modern-day lens.

Many of the so-called flaws of the human mind, as studies in cognition reveal, are relics of our past. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain is not ‘woefully muddled.’ Rather, our methods are flawed. Studies in cognition test the human mind away from its natural environment, based on metrics for which it was not optimized, and using a concept of ‘rationality’ that is foreign to it.

That’s not to say that evolutionary psychologists deny the existence of cognitive biases; they disagree with the idea that the presence of bias is conflated with irrationality. Instead, they say, bias points to one of three categories – *heuristics, error management effects*, and *experimental artifacts*.

Biases as heuristics

Cognitive psychologists explain heuristics as mental shortcuts that assist humans in decision-making. But evolutionary psychologists and behavioral scientists disagree on the effectiveness of heuristics. Literature on cognitive bias points to heuristics as the source of erroneous decision-making. Evolutionary psychology contends that these so-called errors in thinking are results of heuristics taken out of context.

Our ancestors often had to make decisions on the fly, with limited information, and amidst a multitude of distractions. In this context, the ‘fast and frugal’ nature of heuristics was valuable. They required little information and a low cognitive load and this allowed our ancestors to make reasonably good choices. They made do with what was available.

Taking heuristics out of their natural environment and into the lab, researchers impose a different set of standards from what our brains have adapted to. Take hindsight bias. Most literature consider it an error of memory stemming from overconfidence. From an evolutionary standpoint, however, it shows our brain’s mechanism for self-correction, a way of updating our memory based on feedback received.

Bias as error management

Error management theory, as proposed by David Buss and Martie Haselton, suggests that, when humans react to a stimulus that may or may not exist, we choose the option that leads to less costly consequences for judgment errors. This bias is an evolutionary adaptation for dealing with situations in which we cannot ascertain the presence of a stimulus.

For example, when we hear a roaring in the distance but are unsure if we are in imminent danger, the less costly error would be to run for cover. If we were just overreacting, all we would have lost was energy and time. On the other hand, if we incorrectly ignore this potential sign of danger, we risk losing life or limb – a much greater price to pay. According to error management theory, our minds are biased to choose the first option because it results in a less costly error. This bias does not bother examining the probabilities of either option. It cares about reducing net cost, even at the expense of accuracy.

Error management theory in daily life

We can see examples of error management theory in our relationships with food, ourselves, and other people. Aversion to odorous food, for example, is an adaptive trait. Our mind could interpret the foul smell as spoilage and send us signals to avoid it, lest we get ill from ingesting something unsafe.

From an evolutionary perspective, overconfidence can also be considered adaptive. If we do not believe in our capabilities, our life remains stagnant. But if we have belief in ourselves, we can achieve great things in life. Should our confidence prove unwarranted, we can pick ourselves back up and regroup.

In terms of social relationships, error management theory explains out-group bias as a necessity for our ancestors. If we incorrectly assume that a stranger bears no ill intent, letting our guard down could cost us our life. On the other hand, the only risk with being overly vigilant is coming across as unfriendly – a small cost in exchange for safety.

Biases as artifacts

A third and final way to explain bias from an evolutionary perspective is that it may appear in studies as artifacts of research methods. As evolutionary psychologists argue, most cognitive research uses inappropriate techniques to assess human cognition. They find issue not just with how they study cognition but also with what they test for. There is a mismatch between our current concept of rationality and that of our ancestors. Their priority was survival. We have moved beyond that. Our brains, on the other hand, have adapted to our ancestors’ needs but have not yet caught up with ours.

For example, behavioral scientists view hyperbolic discounting as a human flaw because our preference for immediate rewards is irrational. However, if we take an evolutionary perspective, this tendency seems reasonable. We choose the immediate reward because we are unsure whether we will be around to reap future rewards – what if we are no longer alive by then? Neither line of thinking is superior, they are just made for different contexts.

Insights from an evolutionary perspective

Evolutionary psychologists concede that not all biases are adaptive. The brain, for all its intricate magnificence, does have its limits and its flaws. But what an evolutionary perspective seeks to achieve is to reach a balance and move away from a value judgment of biases.

Rather than framing cognitive bias as something that needs to be eradicated, lapses in rationality present an opportunity for researchers to formulate better questions about how the mind works. Seeing biases as artifacts of research methods opens doors for improvements in methodology, and for a reassessment of the types of questions we ask about the human brain.

Cognitive psychology is a relatively young field of study with many growth opportunities. Drawing from its own recommendations, fostering a culture of open discussion and a diversity of views can pave the way for better learning and fruitful outcomes. As in other aspects of life, let us see past our own biases and use them to our benefit.

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