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Reflection 5: Cognitive Biases

In our continued journey into the art of reflection, we shall be looking at the interrelated concepts of mental models and cognitive bias and how they impact on our capacity to reflect meaningfully.  In our previous blog post in this series, we discussed the idea of cognitive preferences and suggested that when reflecting we could enhance our reflective activities and outputs by applying System 1 and System 2 type thinking modes to the issue that we were reflecting on (Kahneman, 2011).

In keeping with the idea of personal differences and preferences, we would now like to look through the lens of mental models and how these models may help or hinder our reflecting activities.  A mental model is a perspective that we have developed over time about something that has been shaped through knowledge acquisition, experience, values, influential people and possibly societal norms.  A simple example is; my mental model of a family unit may be very different from yours.  My family unit comprised one parent (father) and one brother.  If you grew up with two parents and many siblings, we may have a different mental model of what comprises a family unit.  When we talk about family, we would no doubt have different perspectives due to our knowledge and experiences.  If each of us were to go onto have children, our parenting skills may differ and may cause us to be critical or stand in awe of one another’s behavior or decisions.  When faced with having to make a decision about the same issue concerning our children, we may come to different decision outcomes because our decisions will be based on our unique mental model of parenting.

So mental models shape our problem-solving and decision-making processes and we naturally welcome this diversity of thinking in today’s complex environment as it helps us to learn, develop and grow.  http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/504271482349886430/Chapter-3.pdf

Staying with this concept of mental models but now overlaying the concept of cognitive bias, which is slightly different to that of mental models, in that we develop our own perceived subjective reality that may be at odds with accepted norms and objective, derived evidence.  These biases could be influenced by factors that we may not be consciously aware of but again these biases could impact on our problem-solving and decision making outputs.  The famous ‘Linda experiment’ conducted by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is a good example of how people make decisions that are unduly influenced by factors that may tap into deep reserves of thoughts about situations that are subjective rather than objective (Tversky and Kahneman, 1983).   Briefly, the experiment was set up to provide subjects with a set of characteristics about ‘Linda’ (a fictitious person) and they were then asked to come to the most likely conclusion about her.  A large proportion of people in the study came to an erroneous conclusion that was not based on fact but more likely based on their own view of the world and interpretation of the given characteristics.

Jeanne Liedtka (2015) discusses the notion of cognitive bias, within the context of Innovation and Design Thinking, which is a process that can help to resolve complex, ill-defined problems.  She cites 9 types of cognitive biases suggesting that each one can impact on either the ability to develop novel solutions or the willingness to implement new solutions.

So, how do mental models and cognitive bias impact on our capacity to reflect effectively and meaningfully and how might we overcome the negative effect of these two concepts?  We suggest that we first need to develop our awareness of the effect that our mental models and cognitive biases have on us and the influence they could bring to bear on a specific issue that we want to reflect on.  This thinking about thinking is often referred to as meta-cognition.  Once we bring this awareness into our conscious thinking process, the output of that awareness becomes data on which we can act and make decisions.

One final idea on how to reduce cognitive biases is by working to reduce a ‘fixed-mindset’ and instead aim to develop a ‘growth-mindset, as proposed by Carol Dwek.  Professor Dwek’s key message is that process is more important than outcome in terms of promoting learning and growth and in turn this activity can help to lay down new neural pathways in the brain that help to stimulate learning and growth.


It would seem that a virtuous circle of learning and growth could be achieved from thinking about thinking through the process of reflection.

Happy reflecting!



Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.  Allen Lane, Penguin Group: London

Liedtka, J. (2015) Perspective: Linking Design Thinking with Innovation Outcomes through Cognitive Bias Reduction.  Journal of Product Innovation Management, 2015: 32(6): 925-938

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1983). “Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgement” (PDF). Psychological Review90 (4): 293–315.