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Biases – how they affect us and what we can do about them

Of all the many elements of human thought, one of the most fascinating to me is the large number of biases that shape our thoughts and influence our feelings and behaviors. Biases can play a major role in our decisions. This newsletter will touch briefly on this subject, and as always I invite you to for a more extensive discussion.

What is a Bias?

A bias is a tendency to think in a certain way, which typically cuts short a more thorough analytical mental process. The old phrase “jumping to conclusions” is one way of describing a bias.

Where did they come from?

The general agreement is that many of our biases represent a mental process that evolved in humans that enabled us to make decisions faster. This dates back to when our principal goal was to survive the day and avoid the saber-toothed tigers. Back when it was “Pay attention or be eaten,” which was a valuable tool.

How do they impact us now?

As time has passed, we have retained the tendencies towards biases, and they do have an important role in helping us to achieve brain efficiency. Now, we are processing information at a different level than survival, and biases help us to get through information quickly.

It is important that we become aware of our own biases and learn to recognize when they are influencing our thoughts and decisions. We also need to be aware of others’ biases and their impact on interactions and decisions. This knowledge can shed a lot of light on workplace conflicts, and point the way towards more positive interactions.

We can have positive biases. For example, “Students who attend XYZ University are good at math.” So when we meet a student from that school, we may incorrectly assume that they have this skill.

There is also a dark side to biases, and this is the focus of this newsletter. Because we generally are not aware of our biases, they can cause us to think and decide in ways that can be counterproductive. We may not “think it through” as a boss of mine said to me years ago. And when we take these mental shortcuts, we may miss important elements, make decisions that work against us, and encounter difficulties interacting with others.

Some examples

A modern-day bias is known as negativity bias, and it refers to the tendency to pay more attention to negative news and events.

Today, we buy newspapers and listen to news reports that essentially deal in negative news. Sources for positive news do not last long in the marketplace. As we are influenced by this bias, we can miss the positive side of events.

Scientists have used the process of peer review for a long time to attempt to minimize confirmation bias, which is the tendency to look selectively for information that supports a thesis.

A favorite of mine is causation bias, also known as “after this, therefore because of this.” I see this in myself as I try to discover foods that trigger my food sensitivities. I may eat something and experience a reaction and conclude that, as it occurred after I ate that food, then that food must be the cause. The food may or may not be the cause. And I may decide to stop eating that food, even though I like it, because my brain tells me that it causes reactions. But that may not be correct.

For people in job searches, if they have not received a response to their resume or interview, they may even get angry at the organization due to causation bias, when the reality may be something very different – the organization hasn’t yet gotten to it.

Another aspect of job search is social comparison bias. This is the tendency, when making hiring decisions, to choose candidates who don’t compete with one’s own particular strengths. And the opposite bias exists – in other situations, a hiring manager might choose someone who presents in a way similar to the dominant culture in the organization.

Comedians and playwrights have used our biases for a long time, to get our laughter and attention. Think of the Three Stooges, and our biased way of looking at buffoons and their incompetence.

So how do we work with our biases?

This starts with becoming aware of your own biases, and that is a result of mindfulness, increasing your self-awareness, observing others and having an open mind. It can be difficult to accept that our way of looking at something, for example, does not represent our best thinking about something, but rather a mental processing shortcut that found its way into our thoughts.

There is an excellent and extensive list with descriptions of biases available through Wikipedia. You may want to scroll through these and observe your reactions to them. Sometimes if you find yourself thinking, “That’s not me,” then the opposite may be the case. We are inclined to defend our biases.

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