4 Biases You Need To Know To Navigate Online Advice

Jun 30, 2020
 Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash


If you’re like me, then you read lots of articles all claiming to be able to fix your problems. It gets confusing and it’s hard to know what to trust. Not all advice was created equal so you need to be critical in what you take on.

I’m imperfect just like every other well-meaning writer. There may be some scam artists out there but most self-help writers truly think they are helping. These imperfections come through in the cognitive biases we display. Life, if you haven’t realized, is incredibly complex so our minds create shortcuts to stay sane. These can distort our perception of reality.

These are four biases I prevent when I write, and I am careful of when I read. Be aware of the biases and you will be harder to mislead.


Survivor Bias

Follow this weight loss program and lose 100lbs like Kevin!

What you don’t see is the hundreds of other people who started the weight loss program and didn’t finish it. We don’t see any ‘after’ photos for all the people who quit.

This is survivor bias and it’s rampant in online advice. We overwhelmingly only see the success stories, not all the failures. It makes sense, doesn’t it? People will be happy to write about something they think worked for them as it serves their ego. Yet fewer people will be willing to talk about their failures as it requires vulnerability.

Even those who do share their failures are less likely to be successful in spreading their message. The survivors can build upon their previous wins to get your eyeballs on their words. We are on the deck of the ship and notice the ice above water, not the massive amount drowning in the sea.

Let’s say we see several stories by people who’ve made money trading currencies. We are going to think we should start! Look at all those successes. But all the people who lose money are embarrassed and keep it to themselves. When you read advice, be careful to try to frame it by seeking out the stories of the losers. Look for the critical reviews and make up your mind.


Illusory Superiority

This is a fancy way of saying the writer thinks they are better than others but they aren’t. It manifests in stories such as “how to become rich!” when they are earning well below average. This isn’t consciously tricking readers, they genuinely believe their story is exceptional.

Self-confidence isn’t a bad thing in itself. We need it to function yet it’s hard to not overcompensate. Insecure people can delude themselves into thinking they are good to not have to deal with their weaknesses. To give advice online you need to have some level of belief in yourself. The problem is when this is delusional.

A study on MBA students at Stanford Unversity demonstrates this effect perfectly. 87% of students rated their academic prowess as above the median. It’s impossible for this to be true. Other studies have shown those at the bottom consistently overrate themselves.

There are four stages of competence cited in psychology:

  1. Unconscious incompetence — Someone is unskilled and doesn’t even know it
  2. Conscious incompetence — Someone is unskilled but is aware
  3. Conscious competence — Someone is skilled but needs to focus
  4. Unconscious competence — Someone is skilled but doesn’t even think about it

Those who fall into the first group suffer from illusory superiority. The rest can offer you value but those who are bad and don’t even know it can’t help you. Yet they may be the first to try to offer words of wisdom. When you read an author, try to place them on this scale, see if they have any evidence for their claims.


Hindsight Bias

Imagine someone blindfolded themselves and crossed the road. A terrible idea and do not try it! They might be nervous before starting to walk and questioning their life choices. If they make it to the other side, the perception changes. With the value of hindsight, they might tell others to do the same because they were safe!

This is the problem with hindsight. Our minds can take an event and tell ourselves it was entirely predictable when it was pure luck. Anecdotes and stories are powerful because we can relate to them. They use a sample size of one though! We overplay our knowledge of future success and downplay the influence of luck.

When a decision is made, the outcome isn’t foreseen. All we can do is try to work out the most probable path to success. What we can see in self-help is where people make awful decisions with low probabilities of victory but happen to win. Their story is then presented to us as if it was a sure thing.

Let’s say someone quits their job and becomes an entrepreneur. If it works out then the person can say it was a fantastic idea! Yet if it fails then they will tell themselves they knew they shouldn’t have quit.

When taking advice from strangers online, remember they don’t know your unique circumstances. They have the power of hindsight for their own life, not yours! Choose what you think gives you the best chance for the life you want by weighing up the options.


Naive Realism

This is the most dangerous bias on this list. We tend to think our views are objective facts and everyone else must be wrong. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s the default state of sharing political opinions today.

In online advice, we can see stories written from this perspective. Do what I say otherwise you’re wasting yourself and stupid. There can be a complete denial of the possibility of different actions being better for different people’s circumstances.

It can make you feel inadequate when you don’t follow the points. You might feel shamed into changing your behavior when it’s not right for you. Yet self-help should be empowering not condescending. There are many paths to what you define as success and you need to find the right one for you. Guard yourself by recognizing the patronizing tone. Ask yourself if it feels toxic to you.

The flip side is where you already follow the advice. The absolutism you read can reinforce your self-righteousness. This can be just as damaging. You’re encouraged to believe those who disagree with you are worthless. This attitude can form barriers to empathy and stop you from opening yourself up to other methods.


What to Take With You

None of us are perfect and we all can be biased without intending to be. We can’t cut them out completely but we can be aware.

Protect yourself from misleading online advice by being mindful of 4 key biases:

  • Survivor bias — We only hear the success stories not all the stories of those who did the same but failed.
  • Illusory superiority — Incompetent people can overvalue the value of their prowess and give advice.
  • Hindsight bias — People portray decisions as great once they already know the outcome.
  • Naive realism — Beware whenever someone’s advice is followed by saying everyone else is stupid.

Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful day!

Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.