5 Cognitive Biases that Favor Those in Positions of Power

· August 13, 2018

Thinking rationally requires effort, preparation, and reliable sources of information. We tend to let our fears, likings, and other things guide us. We sometimes don’t question our ideas (especially if they have to do with what we already had thought) and we just simply approve or disapprove of them, depending on how we feel. This is a clear example of how cognitive biases work.

During political elections and other activities where people are in power, individuals tend to take advantage of cognitive biases to manipulate other people’s opinions. People get to believe that what’s good for the minority, is also good for the majority (or vice-versa). Let’s see five of these control mechanisms:

  • Karma bias

This is one of the most destructive cognitive biases because it leads to injustice. It consists of a mistaken and simplistic interpretation of the principle of action and reaction. One supposes that something can’t happen to someone if they haven’t done anything to make it happen.

Sign that lights up that says karma.

We think that, if someone’s in a bad situation, it’s because they deserve it. The poor are guilty of their poverty, victims are guilty of the aggression, and the sick are guilty of their pain. Even though there’s no data that backs this up, we often think there’s always something “behind” every bad situation.

This is a common bias because it gives us the illusion of being in a controllable world. It makes us believe there’s always something we can do to not to end up like them. This bias carries an intrinsic reinforcer within itself, which perpetuates it.


  • Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias consists of only giving credit to the data that confirmed our already established beliefs. In this case, people don’t evaluate the source of these data or contrast it with different data, they just firmly believe in it. Perhaps this bias also carries an intrinsic reinforcer within itself: it favors our cognitive economy, at least in the beginning.

We could particularly apply this to the political election example or a religious election. Generally, these beliefs are inherited and never questioned. People don’t really know other sides, they automatically think their beliefs are the right ones. This is why the only data they consider valid is the one that supports their way of thinking.

  • Framing effect

This cognitive bias is directly related to the media. It has to do with the tendency to jump to different conclusions, depending on how we access the information or how it’s presented to us.

Man looking into a piece of glass.

This is a classic example: “More than the 30% disagree with Paco”. Instead of saying 70% of the population agrees with Paco, the focus is on the disagreement, giving it a negative connotation instead of a positive one.

  • Illusory correlation

This refers to the tendency to establish links between two variables, even if the correlation doesn’t really exist. That way, the association of two realities comes from invalid elements. It generally tries to cover up a situation or create an illusion of truth.

A very frequent example of this is when structural facts are associated with specific, unrelated events. For example, saying that the town prospered when governor “X” was in charge without considering that, at that same time, people discovered an oil field. The reason for progress wasn’t the governor, but the discovery of the oil field. It might also happen the other way around.

  • Unrecoverable loss

This is also one of the most harmful cognitive biases because it lies at the root of intolerance. It consists of attaching ourselves to our ideas as if they were a real part of us as individuals.

This is why we consider changing our minds a difficult task. On one end, we think we might be getting rid of something we consider “ours”. We see it as a loss. On the other end, it implies great effort. Detaching ourselves from what we believe in and embracing other ways of thought is not an easy thing to do. It might be hard, but it could also be fascinating.

Cognitive biases wrapping a girl's head like threads.

It’s important to be aware of cognitive biases so you can detect them and regulate their influence on your thoughts. It’s vital to do research if you want to be well-informed. However, be careful to only trust reliable sources. At the end of the day, if you want to be free of cognitive biases, pay attention to the things that interested people might express (people in positions of power, in particular).