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Cognitive Biases added to the idea list

This is the 5th idea I’ve added to the list of Ideas I’m Mulling. So far, there’s the codex vitae (book of beliefs), prisoner’s dilemma, the capabilities approach, and wicked problems.

Cognitive biases are a wicked problem. They’re personal, unavoidable, resist available solutions, multifaceted, slippery, and entangle all of us in different ways.

I’ve written a lot about them, and have thought about them a lot, and still find it very difficult to talk about them without running myself around in circles.

The cognitive bias cheat sheet is by far my most popular article on Medium. It led me to getting the book deal that eventually turned into Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement. I am happy that it seems like the conversation around biases is slowly shifting away from “how can we avoid them?” (tldr: we can’t) and ever-so-slightly more towards “how do we accept them, and repair the damage that they are forever bound to cause?”

My follow-up post What Can We Do About Our Bias? did not get nearly as many reads as the original cheat sheet, but I think it delivers on its promise much more directly. It’s not enough to just know about bias… we have to do something about it. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the thing that we should do about it is not try to get rid of them.

I think there are 4 steps that we can take on the path towards managing our bias. Paraphrasing from the longer article, they are:

  1. Opt in. To opt-in to accepting bias in ourselves. To acknowledge and admit to being a participant in systems of bias.
  2. Observe. To observe and be okay with the discomfort of observing the effects of bias, especially in systems that we participate in and are complicit within.
  3. Repair. To commit to attempting to repair the damage caused by bias in the systems that we observe it in, even if we are participating and complicit within them.
  4. Normalize. To go out of our way to establish a new cultural norm centered around proactively seeking to manage the damage caused by bias, so that it can be observed and repaired from within.

Thinking about this in the context of the other ideas I am continuously mulling, I wonder if there is a clue in these steps that might be helpful in the context of other wicked problems like climate change, polarization, inequality, etc.

Once we opt-in to accepting the reality of each of these giant problems, and acknowledge that quick fixes and heroic efforts aren’t going to work, and that the arc of these problems is greater than any of our lifetimes, there’s something promising about committing to observation, repair, and normalization. At least, in my opinion. It’s not a perfect answer, which is why I continue to mull these steps and try to figure out what kinds of new problems they might create, but it gives me a little glimmer of hope that there is a way to orient around these giant problems without sinking into despair. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows?

See the entry for cognitive biases as it was when this article was published, and as it is now.



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Buster Benson

Buster Benson

Product at @Medium. Author of “Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement”. Builder of