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 uncritical associations 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. Of note, a Cognitive Bias is distinct from a Heuristic:
  • Heuristic (Cognitive Heuristic; Heuristic Technique) (Herbert A. Simon, 1950s) – a practical, experience-based (i.e., neither logical nor generalizable) means to solve a problem that usually, but not always, offers an efficient route to a solution
Many Cognitive Biases have been identified, studied, and categorized. Popular classifications include:
  • Cognitive Bias Codex (Buster Benson, John Manogian, 2010s) – is chart in which all of the Cognitive Biases that are listed in Wikipedia (as of 2018) are classified, along with some Heuristics (see above). The categories (and the number of biases and heuristics included in each) are:
    • 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)
Among Cognitive Biases, the following have some prominence in discussions of learning and teaching:
  • Anchoring Effect (Muzafer Sherif, 1950s) – one’s tendency to weight estimates, judgments, and/or opinions in the direction of an initial piece of information
  • Approximation Bias (Samuel Gershman, 2020s) ­– the suggestion that humans take nonconscious mental shortcuts when making observations, due to limitations in cognitive resources. Approximation Bias is argued to be one of two fundamental principles (along with Inductive Bias) that govern human intelligence.
  • Barnum Effect (Forer Effect) (Bertram Forer, 1950s) – one’s tendency to believe or embrace non-specific and vague statements, such as those provided in horoscopes and fortune cookies, as highly accurate and deeply meaningful
  • Confirmation Bias – the tendencies to seek out and embrace information that supports one’s established convictions and to ignore or reject evidence that contradicts such convictions
  • Curse of Knowledge (Curse of Expertise) (Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, 1980s) – the tendency to assume that the one with whom one is communicating has adequate background knowledge to understand
  • Hawthorne Effect (Elton Mayo, 1930s) – the tendency to adjust one’s activities (not necessarily deliberately) when one is aware of being observed
  • Illusion of Knowing (Ann Brown, 1970s) ­­– when one is convinced one understands when one does not, owing to a lack of awareness of (or ignorance about) what one does not know
  • Illusory Superiority (Above-Average Effect; Lake Wobegon Effect; Leniency Error; Primus Inter Pares Effect; Sense of Relative Superiority; Superiority Bias) (David Myers, 1970s) – a tendency to overestimate one’s abilities and personality traits in relation to those of others. Specific types of Illusory Superiority include:
    • Dunning–Kruger Effect (Overconfidence Effect) (David Dunning, Justin Kruger, 1990s) – the tendency of those with limited expertise in a specific domain to overestimate their knowledge or skill in that domain. (Note: Some definitions include the complementary notion, whereby experts underestimate themselves. See also Conscious Competence Model of Learning.)
  • Impostor Syndrome (Impostor Phenomenon; Impostorism) (Pauline Clance, Suzanne Imes, 1970s) – the feeling of being a fraud, typically rooted in a lack of confidence in one’s qualifications and abilities in relation to a role or situation
  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit Theory; Unconscious Bias) – nonconcious acts of attributing particular characteristics or habits to members of an identifiable group (distinguished, e.g., according to sex, gender, race, nationality, accent, class, etc.), typically associated with ascribing negative judgments
  • Inductive Bias (Samuel Gershman, 2020s) ­– the suggestion that humans prefer or are predisposed to particular expectations or hypotheses, which orient subsequent observations and frame interpretations. Inductive Bias is argued to be one of two fundamental principles (along with Approximation Bias) that govern human intelligence.
Discourses on becoming aware of, mitigating, and/or overcoming Cognitive Biases include:
  • Debiasing – technically, any reduction of bias. The term is usually applied to deliberate efforts to become more aware of Cognitive Biases and to develop thinking habits and decision strategies that are rooted in sound reasoning and available evidence. The three main strategies for Debiasing are Nudging (see Behavior Change Methods), changing Incentives and/or Rewards (see Extrinsic Motivation Discourses and Drives, Needs, & Desires Theories), and training. The last of these includes:
    • Training-in-Bias Techniques (Implicit Bias Training; Unconscious Bias Training) – any program or technique designed to expose and influence prejudices that infuse automatic patterns of thinking and acting
    • Training-in-Rules Techniques (R.P. Larrick, 2000s) – any program or technique that aimed at improving abilities and predispositions to think critically – that is, rely on sound Modes of Reasoning and available evidence – when contemplating decisions and actions


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.


  • Anchoring Effect
  • Approximation Bias
  • Cognitive Bias Codex
  • Barnum Effect (Forer Effect)
  • Confirmation Bias
  • Curse of Knowledge (Curse of Expertise)
  • Dunning–Kruger Effect (Overconfidence Effect)
  • Hawthorne Effect
  • Heuristic (Cognitive Heuristic; Heuristic Technique)
  • Illusion of Knowing
  • Illusory Superiority (Above-Average Effect; Lake Wobegon Effect; Leniency Error; Primus Inter Pares Effect; Sense of Relative Superiority; Superiority Bias)
  • Implicit Bias (Implicit Stereotype; Implicit Theory; Unconscious Bias)
  • Impostor Syndrome (Impostor Phenomenon; Impostorism)
  • Inductive Bias
  • Training-in-Bias Techniques (Implicit Bias Training; Unconscious Bias Training)
  • Training-in-Rules Techniques

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Cognitive Bias” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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