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Four Biases That Make Us Repeat Mistakes 🚀

Updated: May 18

In a previous post on Strategic Practice, we looked at strategic, problem-solving steps needed to overcome challenges and correct mistakes. As simple as these steps may have sounded, they are much easier said than done.

If you've ever found yourself doing everything right but continually repeating errors, you may have fallen prey to one or more cognitive biases that make us want to repeat errors! (What!?). There are four biases to blame for this: 1) Familiarity Bias, 2) Confirmation Bias, 3) Self-Serving Bias, and 4) Frequency Bias.

In the chromatic scale below, the correct left-hand fingering is noted as fingers 1-2-3-4 (in order). On the guitar you could play this on the 4th string, frets 1, 2, 3, & 4. With this in mind, let's discuss each bias and see how we might fall prey to each one.

Familiarity Bias (1, 2)

The familiarity bias is a result of the "mere-exposure effect " where we end up preferring things that we are exposed to often even if those things are not objectively the best choices. For example, if we accidentally use the finger order 1-2-3-3 in the scale above and make this same error too many times, our alternate fingering might start feeling familiar and comfortable. As a result, we might continue using our preferred fingering instead of the more efficient 1-2-3-4 fingering!

Frequency Bias (3, 4)

The second bias is also known as the "availability heuristic" and occurs when we rely on easily available information to make judgments or decisions. Imagine if we have a little doubt about our 1-2-3-3 fingering above and decide to Google it. After doing so, we get a bunch of results showing our 1-2-3-3 fingering for the same phrase and only a few that show the 1-2-3-4 fingering. Instead of basing our final decision on the credibility of the sources of our search, we may assume that the majority can't be wrong and consequently settle on our 1-2-3-3 fingering. This leads us to the third bias.

Confirmation Bias (5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

This bias occurs when we look for information that confirms our preexisting beliefs or expectations and ignore information that contradicts them. At this point, in our example above, we might be pretty convinced that our 1-2-3-3 fingering is the way to go but still have a tiny bit of doubt. So we decide to look it up again but instead of looking for credible sources that support the 1-2-3-4 fingering, we only look for videos or teachers that validate our 1-2-3-3 fingering.

Self-Serving Bias (2, 10, 11, 12)

Our final bias occurs when we attribute our successes to internal factors like natural abilities and our failures to external factors like other people, bad luck, a bad guitar, etc. In our example, if we accidentally teach ourselves the 1-2-3-3 fingering and blame the font size for being too small to read, then we are less likely to read our fingering carefully next time than if we had taken responsibility for having misread it the first time.

How to Beat the Bias System

The good news is that simply being aware of these biases will already help us combat them. In addition to our awareness, we can also take active steps to mitigate them or prevent them from slowing our progress.

  • Analysis Breaks: The first step is to take plenty of breaks between stimuli (e.g., repetitions) in order to briefly analyze our practice for errors and successes. According to research (1), by doing so, we give ourselves time to question our attempts and make any necessary adjustments for the next repetition. Here's a video I made on how to use breaks effectively in practice.

  • Credible Feedback: Getting feedback from teachers, coaches, and even peers is a great way to fight these biases so long as each feedback source is credible. Make sure to seek out information from knowledgeable sources even if their suggestions conflict with your beliefs and aren't popular.

  • Alternative Approaches: When approaching a challenge, it's also important to be open to a few different solutions. Even if something feels right (1-2-3-3), always be open to the possibility of a potentially better approach (1-2-3-4). Whenever a fingering feels challenging, I always look for an alternative fingering that might make playing easier.

  • Alternative Explanations: Sometimes the cause of an error is not as simple as what we see. For example, if we keep missing a note with our right index finger, it may be because our shoulder is tense, rather than because our finger is imprecise. It's important to remain open to alternative explanations.

  • Take Responsibility: It's hard to admit having made mistakes and not be judgmental, but in music practice, it's essential to admit mistakes often. And to do it well, we have to practice having a scientific, problem-solving mindset. Our admission to mistakes can never be a judgment of our characters; instead, it must be a judgment of the situation. Instead of saying, "I can't believe I messed up that fingering. Anybody home, McFly?!" We can say, "I totally misread that fingering. Next time I'll double-check!"

  • Objective Data: When in doubt, always reference an objective and credible source like your (credible) sheet music or your teacher(s). Look for credible opinions that confirm and oppose your opinion and then decide what path to take. One of my favorite objective practice strategies is to video record myself playing short phrases of music and watch back right away to look for errors that need correcting and successes that I want to repeat. I highly recommend this one.

  • Strategic Practice: Having a practice routine that includes strategic practice is an indispensable way to combat all of the biases mentioned above. Make sure to read about this here.

  • Be Patient: Finally, and maybe even most importantly, be patient with your progress and problem-solving process. Being in a hurry to improve is a surefire way to inadvertently ignore all of the bias-preventing steps mentioned above. Instead, be as consistent as possible with your practice. Improvement is a result of consistent and patient, cumulative practice over time.


Try these strategies this week and let me know in the comments how they worked for you.

Happy Practicing!

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