How To Avoid Passing Your Cognitive Biases Down to Your Kids

Cognitive bias is a kind of thought pattern that develops from our past personal experiences and observations.

An image of a father and son on a kitchen counter.
Photo: Getty Images.

Whether you love him or loathe him, you likely know of Elon Musk. The CEO of Tesla—and founder of SpaceX—is a (somewhat controversial) figure. However, it wasn't Musk's business dealings that garnered him attention recently, it was a tweet. Yes, something Musk shared on Twitter made waves. But what was Musk talking about? Well, cognitive bias of course, or an unconscious error in thinking that causes one to deviate from the "norm" and create their own subjective reality.

"Cognitive bias is a term used to describe a systematic but definitely flawed way of interpreting the world around you," Shané P. Teran, Psy.D.—a wellness coach and Los Angeles-based therapist—says. It is based on perception, not fact, i.e. those with cognitive bias think subjectively, not objectively. It can be specific to certain groups or affect memory and decision making, and cognitive bias can lead to illogical and inaccurate distortions and judgments, sometimes boarding on called irrationality.

"With cognitive bias, one has a tendency to come up with inaccurate information or conclusions about situations encountered," Meredith McKee, an academic coordinator for Walden University's BS in Psychology program, says.

But why does cognitive bias matter? Specifically, how can cognitive bias affect parenting? Here's everything we know about cognitive bias and how you can avoid passing said bias down to your kids.

What Is Cognitive Bias?

Cognitive bias is a kind of thought pattern that develops from our past experiences and observations. It is problematic because it can interfere with learning new information and/or prevents us from being receptive to alternative or opposing points of view.

What Are Some Common Cognitive Biases?

According to Dr. Teran, there are roughly 175 cognitive biases one might have. However, some of the more common are as follows:

  • Anchoring Bias: Using the first set of information we hear to evaluate (or frame) our opinion of something or someone.
  • Attention Bias: Focuses on recalling information that is most relevant to your needs for survival in the moment while missing other details.
  • Authority Bias: Putting too much weight or stock in authority figures.
  • Confirmation Bias: Seeking out or interpreting information that most confirms what you already believe.
  • Conservatism Bias: Believing older information and/or existing beliefs over new information.
  • Halo Effect: Assuming a single characteristic is reflective of the entire person, i.e., attractive people are kind and/or intelligent.
  • False Consensus Effect: Believing that your actions or beliefs are the most common, even when that is not the case.
  • Self-Serving Bias: Blaming external factors—or others—for failure, deficits, and shortcomings.
  • Optimism Bias: Tendency to think that bad things are less likely to happen to you.

Of course, you may wonder how this looks in the parenting sphere. I mean, how do our cognitive biases really affect our kids? But if you've ever said "my child could never do XYZ; they are too smart/good/well-behaved" then bias has colored your thoughts and your opinions, as this is example of the halo effect. Another example of cognitive bias is believing your child needs to do something in a certain fashion or timeframe to succeed because that is what you did.

What Causes Cognitive Bias?

There are numerous causes of cognitive bias. "Biases, in general, are shortcuts that allow our brains to organize information and create rules that mean we don't have to put the same energy into analyzing every new interaction or experience," says Heidi L. Kar, PhD, MA, MHS from the Education Development Center. But the exact cause of cognitive bias is hard to pin down.

Some common causes of cognitive bias include:

  • Emotions
  • Individual motivations
  • Social pressures

We also attain some biases through our parents, as we tend to have similar values and beliefs. This can affect our cognitive biases.

How Can You Avoid Passing Cognitive Bias Along to Your Kids?

Because cognitive biases give us a "bias" view of the world, causing us to misinterpret both the people and situations around us, it is important we check them whenever possible. "The best thing you can do to avoid passing on these biases is to study, process, and counteract them," Dr. Teran says.

"We do not want to inadvertently model unhealthy biases for our children," Kar adds.

Of course, this is easier said than done. I mean, how do you undue years of unconscious–or subconscious—thinking? But according to Teran, the first step is to admit you have said biases. Once you acknowledge them, you can reframe, refresh, and hone your reasoning skills.

"Working with someone who can be an objective observer of these biases, i.e., a therapist or certified mindset coach, will help you gain skills in emotional intelligence and cognitive reframing," Teran says. Awareness is key, as is self-reflection. Looking for patterns in the past can help you better shape your future. Ask questions. In doing so, we acknowledge our way of thinking isn't always right, and get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

"Are there people or situations that rub you the wrong way," an article on Better Up asks. "[If so,] ask yourself what makes you respond this way and whether you could have a bias that's impacting your perspective."

"Once you have been able to foster an ability to self-guide cognitive restructuring, you can model this for your children. When you see them displaying a cognitive distortion, gently redirect them, offer an alternative perspective and process this change and more open mindset with them."

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