Cognitive Bias


Systematic lapses in reasoning and judgment … that are often useful

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible action and interpretation
  • Knowing is … acting on appropriate biases
  • Learner is … a largely nonconscious actor
  • Learning is … developing biases
  • Teaching is … interrupting biases




A Cognitive Bias is a systematic pattern of thinking and/or acting that is rooted in either bad reasoning or bad judgment, but that nonetheless feels “right” to the person. A Cognitive Bias can be manifest as a perceptual distortion, an inaccurate assessment, an illogical interpretation, or other irrational response. The prevailing view is that Cognitive Biases are mental “short cuts” which, in the right contexts, can lead to efficient and effective action – but that, inappropriately applied, can be constraining or damaging. Many biases have been identified, studied, and categorized. Buster Benson’s (2018) “Cognitive Bias Codex” is one popular classification (bracketed numbers indicate the number of specific biases included in each category):
  • What should we remember?
    • We store memories differently, based on how they were experienced (6)
    • We reduce events and lists to their key elements (13)
    • We discard specifics to form generalities (6)
    • We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact (6)
  • Need to act fast
    • We favor simple-looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options (10)
    • To avoid mistakes, we’re motivated to preserve our autonomy and status in a group, and to avoid irreversible decisions (6)
    • To get things done, we tend to complete things we’ve invested time and energy in (13)
    • To stay focused, we favor the immediate, relatable thing in front of us (3)
    • To act, we must be confident we can make an impact and feel what we do is important (21)
  • Too much information
    • We notice things already primed in memory or repeated often (12)
    • Bizarre/funny/visually-striking/anthropomorphic things stick out more than non-bizarre/unfunny things (6)
    • We notice when something has changed (8)
    • We are drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs (13)
    • We notice flaws in others more easily than flaws in ourselves (3)
  • Not enough meaning
    • We find stories and patterns even in sparse data (13)
    • We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories (12)
    • We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better (9)
    • We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about (9)
    • We think we know what other people are thinking (6)
    • We project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future (14)


Many commentators grapple with the fact that Cognitive Biases are simultaneously characterized in both positive (e.g., as useful efficiencies) and negative terms (e.g., as often irrational and indefensible) – making it difficult to categorize them as “tendencies to guard against” or “aspects of human nature to nurture.” Other commentators appreciate that such simplistic classifications are rarely appropriate when discussing something as complex as human learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Amos Tversky Daniel Kahneman

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Bias does not constitute a theory of learning. However, the notion is a critical element of Cognitive Science research. Indeed, a compelling and defensible explanation of Cognitive Bias is seen by many as a necessary criterion for a scientific theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Bias is not a theory of teaching. Some versions of Critical Pedagogy place considerable attention on being mindful of Cognitive Bias.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cognitive Biases have been studied extensively, with a substantial body of validated evidence associated with most identified biases.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2019). “Cognitive Bias” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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