Cognitive Biases

A faculty member in Economics (Dr. Geoffrey Andron) recently sent this article about cognitive biases and irrational decision-making out to others at ACC with this introduction:

“We all be crazy.  Think how we can use student crazy to stimulate student education.
Also think how to protect students from professor crazy…..and from administrator crazy.”
You have to love his set-up – direct, honest, accurate.
We all be crazy.
We all have cognitive biases; students, faculty, administrators.
We all make irrational decisions; students, faculty, administrators.
Behavioral economists tell us that our cognitive biases lead to irrational choices.  As a political scientist, I can point to many instances of irrational voting choices – that is, voters who vote against their own self-interest, voting instead on emotion (“affect heuristic”), or voting in response to cognitive dissonance or choice overload, or relying on confirmation bias or the hot/cold empathy gap.  Please read the article – it’s a nice reminder of our human frailties and flaws.
So why am I writing about this article?  In part because I try to be self-aware as I go through my days.  As an administrator, I try to pay attention to my flaws and frailties so that I don’t do my work based on decision fatigue, or habit, or the halo effect, or herd behavior, or any of the other cognitive biases described in the article.
But I’m also writing about this because institutions and their systems and processes – and the people who participate in those systems and processes – also have “cognitive biases”.  Whether it’s fundamentally changing our approach to developmental education with just-in-time remediation in corequisite course pairs (mandated by state statute), or trying to find common ground at ACC around the meaning and functioning of shared governance, or asking faculty who are comfortable with the lecture approach to embed active and collaborative learning into their curriculum – in all these things and more, cognitive biases come into play, defining our resistance, fear, or stubbornness as much as our affirmation, innovation, and support.
As Dr. Andron asked, how might we use students’ cognitive biases to help them learn and succeed?  And to extend his question, we could ask all sorts of additional questions.  How might we call ourselves our (or our colleagues) on some of our own (or their) evident biases so that we put students at the center of our decision-making rather than our own (or their) own comfort and stubbornness?  How might we respectfully disagree, but then move beyond disagreement to seek common ground about shared governance, or high impact teaching practices, or an early alert referral system, or the best practices in distance education reflected in Quality Matters, or the myriad other issues that merit deep and serious discussion?
How might we all assess our own cognitive biases and irrational decision-making in ways that move us forward as an institution, with student success at the center of it all?  What can I do myself?  I can make sure I’m alert to the sunk cost fallacy and the representativeness heuristic and the projection bias and the over-justification effect.  I can be open to suggestions and I can learn from my mistakes.  And in all things, I can make sure that my guiding principle is equity in student access, persistence, and completion.  Join me on the journey.  Call me on my cognitive biases.  And send me suggestions along the way!