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Are cognitive biases contagious?



So cognitive biases are the beating heart of behavioral economics and finance. But where do they come from? Are they innate or learned? Or are they epigenetic, some complex combination of the two where environmental factors trigger a gene for one or more of them?

But there’s another possibility, namely that you catch them. Yep just like a cold, measles or Ebola. But in this case the method of transmission is social rather than bacterial or viral. Kind of like spreading a yawning fit.

Did you know that if you spend a lot of time with obese people, you are likely to be obese yourself? And actually, it’s not just obesity but your weight so it applies but also to slenderness. And no, it’s not just that you all eat the same stuff together because you live in the same household. It is actually stronger with friends than with your roommates or significant other. So the researchers concluded that weight is socially contagious.

Nor is just weight a major impact on the other party. The same thing occurs with healthy behaviors and exercise, as you might have guessed. Recently the same effect has been found in married people. If one exercises, the other is far more likely to exercise too.

So there’s every reason to believe that cognitive biases can also be spread socially. In fact recent research into how behavior spreads socially focuses on Twitter

If this is true it has some epic implications for us humans far beyond what has been considered so far. We know from recent research that if you are unemployed early in life (say because you had the misfortune to finish your education just as a recession hit), your lifetime income will be lower than otherwise. You will likely never recover from this hit.

Similarly the implication from cognitive biases being socially contagious is that early exposure to particular cognitive biases could also impact the rest of your life adversely (or maybe positively too).

Let’s take career planning as an example. Different companies will have preferred cognitive biases. If your first job is with a company with an adverse cognitive bias, say strong loss aversion, it could permanently impair your ability to do something entrepreneurial even if you are naturally entrepreneurial yourself. So your first job is even more important than you might have thought.

A wise career planner would advise you to only choose companies with good cognitive biases and to avoid those with bad ones. Some companies with great names might have bad cognitive biases so your Harvard degree might get you into great-looking companies with bad cognitive biases that will impair your career and your lifetime chances of doing well (at least by your own lights).

Speaking of Harvard, do different educational institutions also have different cognitive biases? Likely I would think. So instead of slavishly following the recommendations of US News and World report in choosing a school for your kids, you might want to choose them by their cognitive biases.

Oh whoops, there’s no list for that. And maybe likely never will be. Just like a company is unlikely to publish one even if they knew what it was. But that doesn’t mean their cognitive biases are any less likely to impact your future career and life.

But wait; there is a kind of way to find out the cognitive biases of schools and companies. Just look at the crowdsourced sites those rate teachers, company jobs and reputations to find out that’s going on there. They can give you valuable information and if you know enough about some cognitive biases, you can probably get some hint of what they are and the relative influence of the good and the bad ones. That’s better than nothing.

You can see where this is going right? How about the cognitive biases of your business partner? What about the leaders of that acquisition you are contemplating? You potential lifelong love? Come to think about it, what about your parents?

Sounds to me like there’s a product here. Rank colleges by cognitive biases to assess their likely impact on your future money-making behaviors. Rank companies by cognitive bias. Tinder for people who want to make money, not just find the perfect mate.

We can make money out of this social contagion thing. Where do we start?!
























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