The Danger of Intellectual and Cognitive Laziness (Normalcy Bias, Confirmation Bias, Availability Heuristic)

Karen Hurst
Restoring Honor Now

Psalm 15:1-2
New International Version (NIV)

A psalm of David.

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?

2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;

I am attending a Forensic Psychology course at a local university.  It has been very stimulating!  I’ve learned about some things I would like to share.

Definition: Availability Heuristic

An availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind. When you are trying to make a decision, a number of related events or situations might immediately spring to the forefront of your thoughts. As a result, you might judge that those events are more frequent and possible than others. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.

In the textbook: Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application, it is stated:

Whenever the news media highlight certain events and dramatize their significance, the events seem to be more widespread and frequent to people than they really are.  This phenomena is called availability heuristic. (pg 24)

(The Glossary defines this as): The cognitive shortcuts that people use to make inferences about their world.  It is the information that is most readily available to use mentally and is usually based on extensively on the most recent material we gain from news or entertainment.

This is a human phenomena, not just a Progressive or Conservative phenomena.  It does, however, make us aware of our human tendencies.  We take shortcuts.  We take shortcuts because our attention spans have diminished.  So, in the effort to speed things up we take the cognitive shortcuts which ultimately keep from us the information we really need.

As humans, we also have something called “confirmation bias.”  This is the strong preference to have one’s views confirmed.  The problem with this is that it places us in a “closed cognitive system in which only evidence that confirms our existing views and beliefs gets inside.  Other information is sometimes noticed but is quickly rejected as “false.” (Introduction to Forensic Psychology, page 95)

In September of 2010 I wrote a post titled Everything You Need to Know in Four Minutes or Less!  The subject used to demonstrate my point was an economic one, but you can use any of our most heated debates; The Second Amendment, Abortion, Voter ID Laws, People who are in our country illegally, etc.

The message of my post was that you cannot get your information in four minutes or less and function in an informed manner.

The discovery of the phenomenon mentioned above brought this post to mind, but more importantly it occurred to me that if we are taking cognitive shortcuts based on what we hear or read (most of the time in four minutes or less) we are also missing a great deal of information.  Therefore our conclusions are reinforced by what we hear, but they are also impacted by what we do NOT hear…or see.

I believe the current debate about protecting our Second Amendment rights is a perfect example of this.

How do we combat the cognitive laziness to which we are all inclined?  I think about the boiling a frog experiment and how it is a perfect metaphor for our ability to ignore the gradual, but steady destruction of our Constitutional protections.  The lesson of the story is basically, pay attention!

We need to fight the tendency to assume we are sufficiently informed to make rational decisions.  That takes time and effort.  It means you have to search out information and read and listen.  That includes information provided by those who disagree with you.  That is where many people stop.

You also must consider unintended consequences.

So, if you do make the effort you will be more equipped to make decisions.  I wrote another post in August of 2010: “How Do You Know When You are in Hot Water?” The topic was inspired by the vast differences I was finding when one compares the two world views that are competing for our support.  I believe those differences are even more pronounced today.

Finally, in July of 2010 I wrote a post: “If you Smell Smoke You Check to See if there is a Fire.

In this post I wrote:

You decide for yourself.  But first you need to learn the language.  You need to understand what a Progressive means when he says “fundamental transformation.”  You need to understand what he means by “social justice.”  You need to understand what he means by “change the whole system.” You need to examine closely where the progressive’s plan is leading.  You also have to understand that some of what you hear and read are in some cases misleading and in some cases false.  I am finding that these cases used to be less prevalent than they are now.  You need the whole picture.  I know that takes time, but believe me our life, liberty and our pursuit of happiness depends on us all doing our part.

It seems I’ve been fighting the availability heuristic and confirmation bias without even knowing what to call them. I now realize that what I am trying to do is help people fight the normalcy bias and really look at the whole picture that reality shows us.

It is easy, for instance, to dismiss concerns about radical Islam based on many of the responses we hear about how it is bigoted, racist behavior for one to point out concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood.  However, if you read the evidence and listen to their words I have a hard time understanding why one would not be concerned.

If you allow yourself to be manipulated by name-calling and dismiss all evidence that there may be a legitimate concern you are then in that closed system.  Then, your confirmation bias kicks in and you ignore any and all evidence that something may be wrong.  This brings to mind, How Do You Kill 11 Million People?  (If you’ve not read this book I recommend it.) This book shows that what people end up doing is “singing loudly” so as to not hear the cries of the Jews on the trains traveling by their church.

As another example, left-leaning pundits like to mention “police brutality” as frequently as possible.  Is there inappropriate behavior by law enforcement personnel?  Well, yes, just as there are flawed human beings in every profession.  However, if all you ever hear is about cases of brutality and never hear or consider the thousands of law enforcement folks who not only never exhibit that behavior, but even exhibit heroic and life-saving behaviors you would think it was more prevalent than perhaps it is.

Simply repeating a phrase or accusation over and over again does not result in the sharing of truth.  That is where using our intellect and critical thinking abilities comes in.

I believe we all need to exercise our intellect and give some time to really understanding the issues before we take a firm stand.  We need to find truth or at least come as close to it as humanly possible.

That won’t happen in four minutes or less, nor will it happen by reacting emotionally to events that cause us concern.  It will only happen if we consciously and consistently pursue it…combined, of course, with a great deal of prayer.

Ephesians 4:25
New International Version (NIV)

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor,
for we are all members of one body.


“As a matter of honor, one man owes it to another to manifest the truth.”
~ Thomas Aquinas


  1. I like the gist of your advice in this piece, and generally agree in following it, but of course it leads me to conclude you haven’t sought to remove the beam in your own eye before removing the mote from others’ (like most of us).

    These might raise your hackles:

    Where we might agree:

    and disagree?:

    Regards and commendations to a fellow rabble rouser.

    Btw, the proper spelling is “laziness.”

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