Cognitive Bias, or Why You Get Pissed at Your Dad

I love my dad.

He might be the kindest and most compassionate person I know. He’d give you the shirt off his back, even if that meant he’d be shirtless.

Other people love him, too. Of course, they love him for those reasons. But they also love that he screams at the TV when the Giants fumble, or when the ump blows a strike call. They think it’s hilarious when he calls someone a jerk because they have an ugly haircut. And that he insists on telling the same story about “nickel drafts” at Shady Brady’s bar, over and over and over again.

The very things that drive me up the wall. A wall of insanity. Again, Dad? Again, really?

I proceed to get pissed and banter with him, back n’ forth. And at the end of the day, I’m frustrated and exhausted. But I always come back for more bickering. Why do I do that? Why do WE do that?

Perhaps it’s the sunk cost fallacy, or our belief that the more energy we’ve invested in something, the more we have to keep investing in it. A common misconception that hinders our ability to make rational decisions, especially when the emotional stakes are high. You might also connect it with the Nobel Prize-winning work Daniel Kahneman has done on loss aversion and the endowment effect. We tend to overvalue things we own.

It’s quite likely Dad is just taking extreme ownership of his thoughts, but so do you and l. So before you say, Man, if I hear that damn Joe Pisarcik fumble story AGAIN, I might lose it, remember, he’s in deeper. Dad has many more years of heartache with the Giants than you.

Not sold yet? Don’t believe me?

Here’s eight other cognitive biases we all experience and might be the reason you’re pissed at your Dad:

  1. Self-Serving Bias. We’ll start with the mack daddy, no pun intended. We have a tendency to think of ourselves first. It aids what I describe as “Me-First” mentality. There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s completely normal, it’s just human behavior. Dad is no different. I know it’s hard to accept, but Dad has done his time. He spent years bringing you to baseball practice, traveling all over New England to hockey tournaments, and dealing all the while with Mom. I love Mom, but let’s be honest, growing up your ass probably created at least a handful of wars for your parents. Dad probably deserves a little more empathy.

  2. The Halo Effect. This is when we assume correlations that aren’t necessarily true. You can be seen as intelligent because you are trustworthy, even though one has nothing to do with the other. Or a person might do one thing well, so we assume they do everything well. We know this isn’t true, but it’s how we think. Dad is doing this by quite literally assuming that random guy is a jerk just because his haircut sucks. And you might assume I’m credible just because you’re entertained by this article. Okay, bad timing. I am, I promise. But do you get the point?

  3. Priming Effect. This is a form of nonconscious human memory, in which we tend to associate things with other things. Let’s say I hear the word red, I think of blood. I hear yellow, I think of a banana. More to our point, priming affects your thoughts and actions. Next time Dad says, “Let’s watch the game together,” take notice: what are you innately primed to feel? Distress or joy? Because it’s likely to affect the outcome of your time together.

  4. Hot-Cold Empathy Gap. It’s your inability to assess temptation in either a hot or cold state. George Loewenstein made this bias famous. This would explain over-consumption of food, or one-night stands, or any other in-the-moment decision. Here’s the thing, in a cold state, these are the very things we swear we’d never do. So, Dad, he probably doesn’t mean it when he screams at the TV—and you don’t mean it when you scream at him. You’re both just caught up in the moment.

  5. Herd Mentality. This is when people do things because others are doing them, even despite available negative information. This further confirms social proof or consensus influence, as described by Robert Cialdini. Your customers will do what everyone else will do, and so will you, and so will Dad. Dad is repeating the same comment over and over because that’s just what the other guys at work do. And you’re complaining about your Dad’s use of Facebook because that’s what everyone else does.

  6. Spotlight Effect. This is the assumption that people are paying closer attention to you than they really are. Honestly, nobody cares as much as you think they do. Nothing is as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it. You’re just putting a spotlight on Dad’s crazy comment. Or on his bickering with you. It’s not that big of a deal, I promise. 

  7. Curse of Knowledge. When we communicate with others, we unknowingly assume the other person’s level of background information. Apparently, the more we know about a subject, the harder it gets to explain it. Look, Dad was born 20, 30, 40, 50 years before you. What’s intuitive to you might not be so intuitive to him. Just saying. Would it kill you to be a little more explicit with your communication? Be clear. Just saying.

  8. Optimism Bias. Quite simply described as being overconfident. No entrepreneur goes into business thinking they’re going to fail, and yet 1 out of 5 do in year one. No father intends to piss off his son, but at least 1 time out of 5, they do. They’re blind to it. They mean well. And optimism is good. Just don’t let it deceive you into thinking it’s all that’s required when you’re about to go have a beer with Dad. 

Still not sold!? (May I suggest you might be experiencing some confirmation bias, or you’re just interpreting new information to confirm your existing beliefs. No worries—as it turns out, we all do this.)

Just for good measure, here’s a bonus bias. Let’s take a look at Dan Ariely’s work in one of my all-time favorite books, Predictably Irrational. It might not seem obvious right away, but stick with me.

Three choices were given to 100 students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management to purchase an annual subscription to the Economist:

  1. Internet Only for $59
  2. Print Only for $125
  3. Print and Internet for $125

They were asked to select only one option. The best deal seems easy to determine, right? Well, here’s how the Sloan MBA’s shook out:

  1. Internet Only for $59: 16
  2. Print Only for $125: 0
  3. Print and Internet for $125: 84

I know, I know, you’re probably saying, “I knew it!” Well, I was in your boat as well. However, what happens when you remove the “Print Only” option?

  1. Internet Only for $59: 68
  2. Print and Internet for $125: 32

Wait a minute, how could that be?

Sure, from a business standpoint we can see the power of choice architecture. I document this in The Salesperson Paradox: by being deliberate in the choices you offer, you can influence your customer’s assessment of those choices, and ultimately their decision.

But, how does this relate to Dad?

It all stems from relativity. We see things relative to what we have in our narrow picture at the moment. Relativity could be one of the largest contributors to why you’re pissed at your dad.

So, next time you’re about to yell at your dad, remember you’re probably looking at it relative to what you sense in that very moment. All you see isn’t all there is. I know hearing that story about crazy Ricky for the 100th time gets exhausting. But remember, he’s also willing to give someone the shirt off his back.

Dad is going to get you fuming from time to time. No question. In fact, I think somewhere in the Dad job description, it actually says, “Must be able to piss son off.” And you know, I don’t remember seeing, “Make life easier for Dad” in the son job description. Maybe that was in the fine print.

Remember, Dad is human. Just like you and me. And we’re all a bit irrational.

Love you, Dad.