4 Cognitive Biases Every Coach Should Understand (if they are to succeed)

There’s a reason I have worked with 5 different Life Coaches over the last 12-years and it’s not because I like giving money away to random coaches.

Like you I’m a not just a coach, but a Human Being. And also like you, I have blind spots in my thinking because we all do.

And by definition if they are blind spots then they are incredibly difficult to see without the help of somebody else shining a light on them, so I’m not afraid to get help when I need it.

In psychology many of these blind spots called cognitive biases or heuristics and whereas they can sometimes add value, they can also get us into a lot of trouble if we are unaware of their existence.

As a Life Coach it’s your job to spot them and drag them into the open, kicking and screaming if necessary when you are working with clients.

So let’s take a closer look at four of the more common biases and how they can manifest during coaching.


1. Gamblers Fallacy

Imagine you’re in a casino with your life savings in chips pilled in front of you and you’re watching the roulette wheel intently because you have to place everything you have on the next spin of the wheel.

You have been there an hour and noticed that amazingly for a 50-50 chance (it’s not quite 50-50 as there will be a 0 slot and a 00 slot) that red has come up for fifteen consecutive spins of the wheel.

What are you going to do?

Most sensible people realize that the odds of red coming up for sixteen consecutive spins are astronomical.

But equally they know the roulette wheel doesn’t have a memory and the odds of the ball landing on red the next spin are exactly the same as black.

However, the temptation to be swayed by what has happened up to now is almost impossible for most people to ignore.

Intellectually knowing something is not the same as understanding it emotionally which is why people have irrational fears and phobias and make crazy decisions that impartial observers struggle to understand.

Most people think they make decisions based on logic and critical thinking. That they take into account all the information, weigh up the odds and then make a considered decision.

Most people are wrong.

One of the reasons we have President Trump and not President Clinton at the moment is that Trump appealed to people’s emotions whereas Clinton went after voters using logic.

Where Do We See This With Clients?

This isn’t as obvious as some of the other cognitive bias, but it’s no less pernicious.

The example above with my client who wanted to start a Life Coaching practice but was hesitant because of her previous failure was also an example of gambler’s fallacy as well as confirmation bias (and even status quo bias too just for good measure).

Let’s look at the facts to see why her previous failure was no indication that she would be unsuccessful the second time around.

  • The businesses were in no way connected and were in different industries
  • She had another 10-years experience
  • She could analyze the mistakes she made the first time around and avoid them this time
  • She was getting help this time (me) whereas she was flying solo las time

If you look at all that rationally then she was obviously in a stronger position to make a go of things. There was very little correlation between a previous attempt to run her own business and this one.

You will see this crop up in all sorts of areas such:

  • I failed to lose weight last time around so I will fail this time
  • I didn’t get the job at my last interview and therefore, I won’t at this one
  • I missed the last big goal I set, so I’m bound to do so again
  • I made a mistake with a client and I just know I’ll do the same next time

As coaches it is our job to gently point out that history doesn’t repeat itself unless we let it. And that the previous failures are there to be learned from not to be replicated.


2. Sunk Cost Fallacy

Sometime around 1998 things started to change in the music industry seriously threatening the status quo for people like myself who owned a record store.

Firstly, CD burners started to tumble in price meaning anybody could copy CD’s easily and cheaply and thus not have to buy all their music legitimately.

In and of itself that wasn’t going to kill off the industry anymore than tape recorders managed to in the 1980’s, but it chipped away at profit margins.

The real nail in the coffin was the launch of file sharing sites like Napster.

Now you could share all your music from the comfort of your computer and likewise download other peoples collection all for zero cost.

I knew it was coming and guess what I did?


In fact worse than nothing, I continued to invest money in a business that in my heart of hearts I knew was on the way out.

Sunk cost fallacy is when you continue to invest in something simply because you have invested in it previously.

Where Do We See This With Clients?

We can see it with financial investments and these may indeed be the easiest to spot.

But it can equally be investments in time and/or an emotional investment our clients are reluctant to let go of.

In my case it was very much an emotional investment as I’d had so many great times and met so many new friends.

I talk in ‘Aligning With Your Core Values’ about a client I had one time who had just finished his first year in law school and wanted to be sure that a career as an attorney was right for him.

He was earning excellent money working in IT as a consultant, but had spent a lot of his savings on his first year back in school as he continued to carry on working part-time.

Both from his core values and what he said about the effect it was having on his young family it was glaringly obvious he was making a BIG mistake.

The problem was he was suffering from massive sunk cost fallacy.

He felt that quitting meant he has wasted a lot of time and money and he was looking for every excuse he could muster to ignore the cold hard fact that he was pursuing the wrong career.

I highlighted the values clash (he was massively conflict averse which isn’t ideal for somebody studying to be a trail attorney) and asked him if he hadn’t already started down this path would he do so now?

Even though he admitted he probably wouldn’t I’m still disappointed to tell you he did such an incredible job of focussing on the benefits of finishing his schooling (mainly around money and status) and ignoring the downside that he didn’t quit.

I’m pretty sure these days I’d have been a bit more bullish in pointing out he was heading for problems, but alas I just tried to highlight potential problems and left it at that.


3. Confirmation Bias

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there’s somewhat of a deepening political divide in the United States currently.

Few people over the age of 4-years-old lack an opinion on Donald Trump.

He’s either seen as a skilled businessman trying to Make America Great Again, or a narcissistic fool devoid of compassion and looking to line his own pockets.

Whichever opinion most closely resembles yours is academic when it comes to confirmation bias.

If you like Trump then you will largely dismiss stories as fake news that paint him as uncaring or flat out incompetent. You will search instead for reports detailing his achievements.

If you dislike Trump you may be thinking ‘What achievements?’ And you will happily ignore anything Presidential or statesmanlike he may do as being either a fluke or not accurate.

Confirmation bias kicks in when we have our beliefs challenged by new information because quite frankly our brain hates information that contradicts what it already believes.

It’s almost impossible to hold two contradictor beliefs at the same time as it creates that unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance.

As such our brain will look to support the more established belief by either ignoring new information entirely, or putting less value on it.

Where Do We See This With Clients?

Just about everywhere!

Almost every single limiting belief clients hold will be supported by confirmation bias.

If you have a client who is looking to get fit and they fall off their fitness regime bandwagon they will probably point to the fact that they failed the previous time and therefore it was inevitable.

They will almost always ignore the small victories they achieved either to begin with or in the past because that messes with their belief system.

I was working with a client one time who had started to segue into coaching, but had a few minor setbacks including failing to convert a recent inquiry into a paying client.

She was already convinced she couldn’t make a go of it because her previous attempt at running her own business had failed.

The fact the previous business had failed over a decade earlier and had nothing to do with coaching or even using the Internet seemed lost on her.

She had a deep-seated belief that she couldn’t run her own business and as such was accumulating as much information as possible to confirm that belief.

The reality was she was doing better than most new coaches who hire me and had 5 paying clients in her first 4-months.

To her this was a poor performance even though she was also working a full-time job.

I pointed out that I fail to convert at least half my inquiries and that it took me 18-months before I had more paying clients than she had, so if she was bound to fail how had I managed to keep going?

Overwhelming contrary evidence is almost always always the best way to kick confirmation bias to the herb but be careful with it.

There is another bias called ‘Backfire Effect’ in which the more people encounter contrary evidence the more entrenched they become in their position.


reel of film

4. The Negativity Bias

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend which went something like:

You: How was your vacation?

Friend: It was ok, but it rained on the last day and that kind of ruined it

It’s easy to think that people like that are just miserable and need to lighten up a bit and enjoy life, but it’s not that easy.

As Human Beings we are hardwired to place more emphasis on negative events that happen in our life than we do on positive events with a similar level of standing because they make a greater mental impact.

That isn’t to say that we cannot overcome that hardwiring by using techniques like reframing and even meditation to help us shift our focus, just that it’s not unusual.

I bet you can tell me where you were when you heard about 9/11 and I could tell you exactly where I was when I heard about the death of John Lennon and that was 37 years ago!

Where Do We See This With Clients?

It’s not as easy to spot as you may imagine because we cannot always tell if a client is just focussing on the negative, or if there really isn’t much positive to look at.

Asking questions like, ‘Think really hard for a moment and tell me about the occasions when things went really well?’ and ‘Let’s forget about the stuff that didn’t pan out as you would have liked and tell me the occasions, when it did’ can help.

Both those questions aren’t actually questions per se, they are embedded commands/presuppositions where we don’t give the client any room for maneuver.

If we just ask, ‘when did things go great?’ we run the risk of them responding with ‘never’.

So by telling them to give you an occasion when things went well you remove that likelihood but this post isn’t about clever questioning techniques, that’s for another day.

There are literally scores of cognitive biases so I’m intrigued to know of any that have caught you out either personally or with a client.

When you leave a comment, let me know 😉


  1. Ben Bennett

    Great post, I really enjoyed it. I meet people everyday who beat themselves up over their failures and never give themselves credit for their successes, in fact I’m guilty of that myself. Thought provoking stuff Tim and thanks.

  2. Michael Wecke

    Our mind – Eckhart Tolle would say our Ego – is Velcro for negativity. So it is important, as you said, to ask the right questions (“Think really hard for a moment and tell me about the occasions when things went really well?”). We need to be wide awake for ourselves and our clients in order to note such Confirmation or Negativity bias. This was a good article, Tim (as most if not all your posts are), but I need to re-read to fully grasp those issues. The post also reminded me of something I learned at an NLP course, called Johari’s Window. It is a technique that, among other matters, serves to uncover aspects of your personality that you are not consciously aware of. A coach would be able to pick up personality traits that I am personally not aware of. Once these have been identified, a Coach can well steer the client on a new path where he or she may no longer be encumbered by potentially self-sabotaging personality traits.

    • Tim Brownson

      Well you have me on the back foot because I’ve never heard of Johari’s Window! No doubt Google will come to my rescue 😉

  3. Biases are everywhere. Easy to see in others, hard to see in oneself. I’ve found the easiest way to stay on track is to have a specific goal you’re moving toward. That way it’s easy to tell if you are getting closer or not. When you’re just bouncing around (usually fulfilling other goals) it’s easy to be oblivious to what’s going around.

    Recently a site I like (zerohedge) posted a fantastic infographic with all of the biases (hundreds) in one nifty chart.


    • Tim Brownson

      Hell of an infographic, although to be honest I’d rather have had multiple infographics cover smaller areas as there’s not much description.

      That was designed for social shares and SEO rather than to actually be of practical use. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nitesh

    Thank You for these biases. They are mostly part of our every day conversation as well. We tend go down the path of our memory. It reminded me of a concept in Yoga called vritti-samskara cycle – where we are in an infinite loop of taking the same action because of the latent impressions due to our past experiences.