image adapted from a  photo  by Flickr user jrduboc

image adapted from a photo by Flickr user jrduboc

We all have cognitive biases. We have moments when our subjective experience doesn’t quite match up with objective reality. There are times when our judgement is impaired, not by drugs or alcohol, but by our own limited capacity for processing information.

Since we can’t escape our own biases (no matter how many books we read on the subject), we might as well put them to work for us! Here are five happiness hacks based on cognitive biases that we all experience.


by Flickr user danielygo

by Flickr user danielygo

Maximizing the peak/end rule

There’s a famous study by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (reported in his bookThinking Fast and Slow) in which colonoscopy patients were divided into two groups. Both groups experienced the uncomfortable procedure, but the second group got an additional few moments of mild discomfort at the end. Surprisingly, members of the latter group, who experienced a longer procedure, had a more positive recollection of the experience after the fact. The explanation? Their overall memory was disproportionately informed by the end of the procedure, which was less painful.

This is known as the peak/end rule—people’s perception is based not on the objective sum of an experience, but the average of how it was at its peak and how it ended. To take advantage of this brain blip, save your favorite part of a meal for the end, plan a sure-fire hit for the last day of your vacation, and always end your work day by joking around with colleagues.


by Flickr user sk8geek

by Flickr user sk8geek

Maximizing the mere exposure effect

Research shows that people exhibit a preference towards things after repeated, long-term exposure to it. This is sometimes called the mere exposure effect or the familiarity principle. It may be irrational, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make it work for you! Want to get your kids to like broccoli? Make them try a little bit several times. Not sure about a new shirt you bought? Try wearing it a few times, and see if it grows on you.

Be warned, there does seem to be an upper limit to this trick. Studies have shown that after an initially positive reaction to repeated exposure to advertisements, consumers may become ambivalent after crossing a certain threshold of repeated viewings.


by Flickr user Uncalno Tekno

by Flickr user Uncalno Tekno

Maximizing selective perception

In another study, people tasted wines that they believed to be sold at certain prices (in reality, the prices were different from what they were told). When they believed they were drinking more expensive wine, not only did they report that they enjoyed it more, but fMRI scans of their brains showed increased activity in the part of the brain that is believed to encode experienced pleasantness. In other words, they didn’t just say they liked it more, they actually did like it more.

This is an example of selective perception—the tendency for expectations to affect perception. And you can use it to enjoy things more (and help others enjoy it more)! Try making a deal with your partner that you’ll each occasionally lie about the cost of something, like a bottle of cheap wine. Consider it a happiness gift to one another.


by Flickr user stasiland

by Flickr user stasiland

Maximizing choice-supportive bias and the bandwagon effect

Choice-supportive bias is the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to a choice you made. The bandwagon effect is exactly what it sounds like—our tendency to believe what other people believe. Put these two biases together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for avoiding buyer’s remorse.

Feeling insecure about a pair of shoes you just bought? Ask a positive-minded friend for her opinion. She’ll likely say she loves them, and your brain is primed to believe her and love them, too. Cognitive bias for the happiness win!


by Flickr user anttree

by Flickr user anttree

Maximizing the Ikea effect

The Ikea effect is the widely known tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assemble themselves, regardless of the objective quality or value. Researchers at Harvard Business School have shown that people see their own creations as similar in value to the work of experts, and even expect others to share their opinions.

While this kind of self-delusion might get you in trouble in certain aspects of your life, you can certainly use it to your advantage in others. Cook your own meals, make and hang your own wall art, and learn to play an instrument. You’ll get way more happiness bang for your buck in these low-risk endeavors than you would if you paid a professional (fortunately you won’t lose your admiration for those who have mastered these crafts).


The examples above are meant to be harmless strategies for taking advantage of our unavoidable biases. However, in many circumstances, we should be on high alert for how our biases are affecting our judgement. They often make us poor decision-makers and poor eye witnesses, and the effects can be harmful. (They also form the basis of advertising.)

My hope is that practicing the above makes us more aware of our biases andless likely to use them for unintentional evil.