Cognitive bias is a natural human tendency to interpret information in a way that supports our existing beliefs, even when those beliefs are incorrect. It happens when our brains create shortcuts based on our current views (whether accurate or not).
Just as news outlets and publications maintain a particular theme or political leaning, our brains can do the same.
These biases are not occasional flukes but frequent and predictable errors in reasoning that arise from our brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Look at it as another department to manage.
Everyone is subject to cognitive biases, significantly shaping our thoughts and perceptions, often without conscious awareness.
In the context of addiction recovery, cognitive biases can be particularly potent. Individuals battling addiction are not only facing a physiological battle but also a psychological one where biased thinking can alter their perception of reality, their addiction, and the recovery process itself.
According to a cognitive bias study conducted by Experimental Psychologist Wyatt G. Frahm, “modifying these cognitive biases may result in improved recovery outcomes or addiction treatment strategies.” (Kakoschke, Kemps, & Tiggemann, 2017)1
The Most Common Cognitive Biases in Addiction, Defined
Several cognitive biases are notably prevalent among individuals struggling with addiction. For example:
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, often leading to disregarding evidence that could help in recovery.
- Optimism bias: Overestimating the likelihood of positive outcomes, such as believing one can control substance use without help, can lead to relapse.
- Negativity bias: The propensity to give more weight to negative experiences or information, which might result in a defeatist attitude towards the recovery process.
These biases can manifest as an individual rationalizing continued substance abuse or underestimating the consequences of their actions. For instance, someone may repeatedly underestimate the risk of relapse after ‘just one drink’ due to the optimism bias, hindering their recovery progress.
Examples of How Cognitive Bias Impacts Addiction Recovery Progress
Here are examples of cognitive biases that can interfere with addiction recovery progress, along with specific scenarios that might illustrate how these biases can manifest:
- Confirmation bias: A recovering alcoholic may only focus on their periods of sobriety and downplay or dismiss their relapses, believing that they are not representative of their overall progress. This can lead to a sense of false confidence and make it more difficult to maintain long-term sobriety.
- Optimism Bias: Cole believed he could handle occasional drinking without slipping back into alcoholism, a clear underestimation of the risk due to optimism bias. It was only after several relapses that Cole realized his bias. With support, he began to understand that he wasn’t an exception to the rule and that recovery required complete abstinence.
- Negativity Bias: Every time Maria faced a minor setback in her recovery, she viewed it as a catastrophic failure. Her negativity bias amplified her belief that she was incapable of overcoming her addiction. It took persistent cognitive-behavioral therapy for Maria to start recognizing the bias in her thought patterns and learn to celebrate her small victories.
- Availability bias: A person in early recovery may overestimate the risk of relapse, especially after exposure to relapse-related triggers. This can lead to anxiety and fear, which can, in turn, increase the likelihood of relapse.
- Hindsight bias: After a relapse, an individual may believe that they should have known that they were at risk and could have prevented it. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, which can hinder progress in recovery.
- Filtering bias: Individuals in recovery may focus on their weaknesses and imperfections while ignoring or downplaying their progress and achievements. This can lead to a negative self-image and make it difficult to maintain motivation in recovery.
- Attribution bias: An individual in recovery may blame their relapses on external factors, such as stress or difficult life circumstances, while denying their role in relapsing. Outsourcing blame can prevent them from learning from their mistakes and making necessary changes to their recovery plan.
- Anchoring bias: An individual in recovery may set unrealistic expectations for their progress, believing that they should be completely symptom-free within a short time frame. Setting unrealistic expectations such as “all-or-nothing” ultimatums can lead to frustration and discouragement when they experience setbacks, especially if trying to achieve sobriety without help.
- Social desirability bias: An individual in recovery may avoid discussing their addiction struggles with others, fearing judgment or rejection. This can make it challenging to get the support they need and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Ingroup bias: An individual in recovery may only seek support from others who are also in recovery while avoiding contact with people who are not struggling with addiction. This can limit their exposure to different perspectives and make developing a well-rounded recovery plan more difficult.
These illustrate how cognitive bias impacts addiction recovery progress by distorting perceptions, hindering self-awareness, and undermining motivation. By understanding and addressing these biases, individuals in recovery can increase their chances of achieving long-term sobriety and a fulfilling life.
Additional Cognitive Biases that can Hinder Addiction Recovery
- Fundamental Attribution Error: This is when people overemphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while underemphasizing situational explanations. For instance, they believe that those who struggle with addiction are just “weak-willed” or “morally flawed” individuals. If they are suffering, it’s solely due to their inherent weaknesses, not considering the complex interplay of environmental, genetic, and social factors that contribute to addiction.
- Sunk Cost Fallacy: This bias can make someone believe they should continue a behavior because they have already invested so much time, effort, or resources into it despite it being harmful. For example, an individual might think, “I’ve been using drugs for so long; I can’t stop now, or it would mean I’ve wasted years of my life. I can’t possibly start rebuilding now.” And that’s an unfair assessment. I am proof of that, along with many others who decided to let themself reset and rebuild on their terms.
- Bandwagon Effect: The tendency to do or believe things because many others do or believe the same. An individual in recovery might think, “Everyone in my social circle drinks, so it must not be that bad if I join in.”
- Peer Influence and Bias: For instance, if your friend insists that only weak people need rehab, you might internalize this belief due to the Authority Bias, where we tend to overvalue the opinions of those we see as authority figures or close allies. This can create a significant mental block, preventing someone from seeking the help they need because they fear being perceived as weak.
One can learn about cognitive biases through workshops and educational programs. By understanding how biases like the Halo Effect can cause one to irrationally connect unrelated aspects of a person or situation (e.g., “He is a good athlete, so he must not have a serious addiction.”), individuals in recovery can better navigate the complex landscape of social perceptions.
These examples presented relatable scenarios that may reflect your own experiences or observations. They highlight the challenges posed by cognitive biases and the triumphs over them, demonstrating the effectiveness of strategies such as mindfulness and cognitive restructuring. And as a result, it helps you identify the exact behavior you or your loved ones have struggled with.
Address the Challenge of Recognizing Cognitive Biases to Progress Through Addiction Recovery
Recognizing one’s own cognitive biases is inherently challenging. These biases are ingrained and often operate below the level of conscious awareness. Moreover, individuals may rationalize their biased thinking, defending it as logical despite evidence to the contrary. The path towards overcoming these biases begins with self-awareness, self-compassion, and mindfulness, cultivating the ability to objectively observe one’s thoughts and behaviors.
Strategies for Overcoming Cognitive Biases in Recovery
To counter cognitive biases, individuals seeking recovery can adopt several techniques:
- Seeking alternative views: Talking to others and considering different viewpoints can help mitigate the effects of biased thinking. This is only a fraction of why maintaining a network of people who think differently than you can help support your growth.
- Mindfulness and cognitive restructuring: Mindfulness exercises help individuals remain present and aware, reducing the impact of biases, while cognitive restructuring teaches them to identify and change dysfunctional thought patterns. Moreover, mindfulness and meditation are often covered during rehab as the benefits are well recognized.
- Challenging negative thoughts: This involves scrutinizing and questioning the validity of one’s pessimistic beliefs. While you shouldn’t expect this to change overnight, next time you catch yourself auto-responding to stimuli or environmental cues with negative feedback, ask yourself questions like:
- Are these thoughts accurately reflecting the reality of the situation?
- Are there different perspectives I’m not considering?
Professional Support and Resources for Addiction Recovery
Navigating cognitive biases to conquer addiction often requires more than self-help; professional support for successful addiction recovery is crucial. Addiction specialists and therapists, particularly those trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), are adept at helping individuals recognize and address these biases. Support groups and online communities also serve as invaluable resources for those seeking shared experiences and strategies that can aid in recovery. Moreover, many rehab centers offer supplemental support and therapy that focuses on progressing beyond these limiting biases.
Coming to terms with Cognitive Bias to Conquer Addiction
Understanding and overcoming cognitive biases is a significant step in the journey toward recovery from addiction. These invisible barriers can derail progress, but with self-awareness, mindfulness, and the willingness to seek professional support, they can be surmounted. This journey may be difficult, but it is necessary for lasting recovery.
We encourage you to apply the strategies discussed, remain vigilant against the subtle sway of cognitive biases, and reach out for help. Your path to recovery is yours to forge, but you do not have to walk it alone.
1 Frahm, Wyatt G., “Cognitive Biases in Alcohol and Marijuana Users” (2017). All Master’s Theses. 701. https://digitalcommons.cwu.edu/etd/701