The Gambler’s Fallacy and Other Biases of the Brain

If you’re feeling cynical about people and our foolish ways, a place to go to confirm your dark mood is Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases. It describes more than 150 ways in which our thinking systematically deviates from objective observation and rational thinking. It’s a humbling list, a reminder that the evolution of our brains has left us with some thought processes that, though useful in certain situations, don’t make it easy for us to see the world more or less as it is.

Here’s a sampling. Quotations are from Wikipedia.

Gambler’s Fallacy: “I’ve flipped heads with this coin five times consecutively, so the chance of tails coming out on the sixth flip is much greater than heads.” No, it’s not. The odds are 50-50 for every flip, regardless of the length of any previous sequence that produced one result. Applicable to apparent batting slumps and other so-called streaks of good or bad luck or performance.

False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” I’m sure you’ve all found this to be true.



Actor-Observer Bias: If you cut me off in traffic, you’re a complete jerk. I blame you and your rotten personality. But if I make a quick turn in front of you, I had good reasons for doing so and you’re jerkier complaining. On the whole, we’re not very perceptive about our own characteristics and motivations—or those of other people. We are, however, for evolutionary reasons, quick to identify whatever and whomever might be a threat. Such attribution errors create plenty of misunderstandings and conflict.

IKEA Effect: “The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result.”

Illusion of Truth Effect: “A person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.” Perhaps this has been a safety measure for our species in the long run.

Reminiscence Bump: “The recalling of more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than personal events from other lifetime periods.” Perhaps the vivid imprinting of our first mistakes and successes has helped us survive. In general, our memories are biased towards thinking highly of ourselves.

Illusion of Transparency: “People overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.” Such overestimating gives us confidence about forming social bonds. If we were realistic about how difficult it is for one person to know another, we would be less likely to go to the trouble or take the risk.

These and other biases have either served our species in the distant past or result from the brain’s limited processing capacity. Since these biases won’t go away anytime soon, we had better compensate for them as best we can. Wisdom often amounts to an effort to do exactly that: to be cautious and nonjudgmental in order to give our cognition its best chance.



Cooperation and Competition

In The Origin of Species, Darwin built his argument about natural selection in part from what people already knew full well about combatting the elements and competing with other people. Competition—political, economic, social, biological—has long been one of the prominent descriptors of life. We apply the concept easily and often to life’s many difficulties.

By comparison, references to the happier notions of cooperation and helping others seem sparse. People may use them to describe such special experiences as a team effort or the rebuilding of a community but not to depict the daily course of events. Most people would be unlikely to reply “cooperation” in answer to the question, “What word best describes the ordinary activities of your life?”


Social animals: an ant transports an aphid to the nest,

Cooperation deserves more credit than it gets. It merits equal weight (if not more) with competition in naming the most common dynamics among living things.

There are many reasons why cooperation doesn’t get that attention. One is that it is overshadowed by the related notion of “helping others.” Helping others, altruism, is a virtue enshrined in every religion and philosophy. Reaching out beyond our usual circle to those in need, with no expectation of obvious material reward, ranks at the height of human worthiness.

Mere “cooperation,” on the other hand, is often seen as “ordinary life.” It is certainly inseparable from the social lives of not only humans but many animals as well.  Some female birds, for example, assist their sisters in caring for the sister’s brood. Ants, wild dogs, egrets, gibbons and others sometimes share their food with a group. Chimpanzees raise a clamor when a fruit tree is discovered in order to bring other chimps to the feast. Cooperation is basic.

bird sharing

A bird offers to share;

One reason that it is basic is that it is more efficient than other social interactions in terms of cost and benefits for the participants. Competition, for example, leaves one party better off and the other worse off. Altruism is puzzling to scientists because the altruist appears to put himself at a disadvantage (he may donate money, for instance) while the recipient becomes better off than before. Cooperation, on the other hand, means that both parties clearly come out ahead. No one loses.

Cooperation is important, in other words, because it is more advantageous in the economy of social benefits than either altruism or competition.

There are complications and exceptions, of course. Just how beneficial cooperation turns out to actually be depends on who and what someone is cooperating with. Many people willingly cooperate with groups that cause harm and cooperation may be synonymous with the worst kind of obedience to an abusive authority figure.

red cross

and local Red Cross staff distribute food.

Still, it is utterly ordinary, run-of-the-mill cooperation that provides much of the essential maintenance of life. For humans, sharing daily chores in the kitchen, coordinating plans at work, reaching agreements with anybody on anything, and giving assistance, advice, or encouragement to others—all form the bright fabric of each of our days. To say of cooperation that it is “just life” is to pay it the highest compliment.

As we seek to understand our values, many people think that science is an inappropriate area in which to search. Science is about facts and hypotheses, not about what is desirable and undesirable. That is oversimplified. Evolutionary biology and psychology, along with history, provide a map of the circumstances of living that have fostered life or degraded it. Cooperation occupies a huge portion of the beneficial region on this map, an area so large that it is easy to overlook.