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Rethinking our cognitive bias against cognitive bias

Linda Quarles
Dec 8, 2017 · 5 min read

Bias has been getting slammed in the media, in academic circles, in business, and in politics. Bring on the flames, because I am going to say that bias is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it is one of the most important functions that our brains perform. Bias, at the most basic level, is a form of judgment, which is largely what separates us from other animals.

Bias serves an important purpose.

We are bombarded with thousands of stimuli every minute, and our amazing, complex brains automatically code much of these stimuli non-consciously. These are called cognitive shortcuts (part of which are heuristic biases), and are critical to our advanced functioning. Much of this is thanks to our biases, which have been formed over years of experience. I am grateful that my brain works this way, so that I don’t have to go through a tedious and repetitive exercise every time I walk down the street or step into a room.

For example, I know that when I see an object about three feet tall with a platform and four legs in close proximity to a table, it is likely for sitting on, without having to examine how all my previous experiences and data help me reach this conclusion. I don’t consciously decide that it is a chair, I don’t evaluate where these beliefs came from, and I don’t question others who also believe the same thing. Every once in a while, there is an occasion where this could prove to be embarrassing or slightly uncomfortable. For instance, a co-worker once pulled a prank where he unscrewed all the office chairs, but this did not cause me to closely examine all my chairs from then on—well, at least not for more than a week.

But not all biases are created equal…

According to Psychology Today, “A bias is a tendency. Most biases — like preferring to eat food instead of paper clips — are helpful.” They help us know that we should not walk into glass doors, and that a smaller cup of coffee should cost less than a large one. And, some of our biases, when fully recognized as such are not only NOT harmful, but in fact helpful. That’s how you realize things like, “I prefer dark chocolate over light chocolate” (and help your S.O. out on Valentine’s Day).

Psychology Today continues in its definition of bias, “But cognitive shortcuts can cause problems when we’re not aware of them and we apply them inappropriately, leading to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.” So what psychologists and behavioral scientists know, and so should we, is that when left unchecked, unchallenged, and in our unconscious, some biases can be dangerous, error-ridden, stifling, and prevent the best thinking from emerging.

And facts and opinions are (in fact) not the same.

In 2015, Disney Pixar released Inside Out, and brought neuroscience into the mainstream. Through a charming personification of emotions, it presents many beautiful metaphors for our intricate brain. One of the most brilliant moments happens as an aside during a particularly chaotic moment in adolescent Riley’s brain. Joy accidentally bumps into two boxes and their contents spill out, creating a mixed up mess. As she looks at the pile of items that look almost identical, she bemoans, “Oh no! These facts and opinions look so similar!” Bing Bong, trying to be helpful, assures her, “Don’t worry about it, happens all the time.” He promptly gathers up the mixed up pieces, and dumps them back in the two boxes without any regard for organization.

Such is the dilemma with our own biases. When we categorize facts and opinions in the wrong boxes, we risk flawed decisions and problem solving. This explains the abundance of training on the subject of “unconscious bias,” which helps us distinguish between the useful biases that help us navigate daily life, and unhelpful or even potentially harmful ones. To put it another way, just because I prefer dark chocolate, I would not go so far as to say that milk chocolate eaters are wrong, or that milk chocolate should be outlawed, or that all milk chocolate eaters are terrible people. In fact, the older I get, the more I like milk chocolate.

In our divisive socio-political climate, it is easy to confuse our facts and opinions, and to abandon the desire to learn and understand others’ beliefs. A Wall Street Journal article titled “Facebook to Train Against Bias” was appropriately renamed in the online version to “Facebook Will Train Employees to Spot Political Bias.” After all, everyone has political biases, which essentially inform how we vote. Many of our problems stem not from the fact that we have biases, but from the fact that we do not recognize them as such.

So the best way to combat bias? Curiosity.

If you and I have a difference of opinion, do I judge you, or take the time to better understand what it is about your experiences that have led you to your beliefs? Am I comfortable knowing that I would rather not live in a world where everyone held the same beliefs, because I am not interested in living in Stepford? And knowing that people’s beliefs and opinions can change over time, do I realize that this can only occur when conversations allow space for us to share our biases and treat them as such, rather than as the ultimate truth?

Our challenge is not to discount or degrade our biases, but to acknowledge them, and separate the helpful from unhelpful biases. Not all situations are created the same, and not all of our biases should be shed.

Start learning how to spot your own biases, particularly ones that surface during recent (and particularly dynamic) political events. It will lead to better conversations and decisions, and you might even learn something about yourself and others.

Want to learn more about bias? Explore Wikipedia’s exhaustive list of cognitive biases or one of my favorite summaries on the subject from David Rock and Heidi Grant-Halvorson in Strategy+ Business.

Linda Quarles

Written by

I'm most helpful when a leader or organization finds itself grasping at excellence. Muses: storytelling, design thinking, appreciative inquiry, growth mindset.

Linda Quarles

Written by

I'm most helpful when a leader or organization finds itself grasping at excellence. Muses: storytelling, design thinking, appreciative inquiry, growth mindset.

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