By Angela Noel
November 16, 2017
Certain four-letter words get a lot of attention. I won’t write them here because you already know what I’m talking about. These words have power. Some studies have shown that cussing actually tempers the pain response in the brain. Preliminary theories tell us swear words trigger a “fight” response, helping the body dull sensations of pain.
But I want to talk about a different four-letter word: bias. The word itself won’t lesson pain. Its power comes from describing a whole host of unconscious actions governing our responses to all kinds of sensations and experiences. Saying the word out loud won’t increase or decrease pain, but bias operating in our lives just might.
We often use the term bias interchangeably with prejudice, meaning to be unfairly and irrationally swayed in one direction or another without evidence or experience. But the hundreds of recognized cognitive biases leading well-intentioned individuals into error every day are more nuanced.
The word bias comes from old French. Originally, it meant “oblique line.” People in both the fashion or the food industry know the phrase, “to cut on the bias.” Essentially, this means to cut fabric or food at an angle. Cutting on the bias offers fabric, for example, different properties of stretch than cutting “with the grain” would. More difficult to work with, an angled cut also requires additional fabric to realize the finished product.
Similarly, when bias invades our brains without our conscious knowledge, we operate from an angled or skewed perception. Instead of straightforward, rational thought, our brains take shortcuts (called “heuristics”). These heuristics result in errors in judgment. These errors are cognitive biases. When we use these mental “easy buttons,” we save time in the short term, but risk significant cost. Not all mental shortcuts prove detrimental–we need them, as Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founder of the discipline of behavioral economics, discusses at length in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. But we do ourselves and others a disservice by allowing biases to act unchecked and unacknowledged by our conscious selves.
But, just like cutting on the bias offers flexibility and visual appeal for the creations of clothing designers and chefs, cognitive biases have benefits, too.
By understanding how they work, we can ease social situations, mentor others more effectively, and contribute more at work and at home. In short, cognitive biases aren’t evil. They’re like rocks in the woods. We can use those rocks to build homes or line trails. Or we can use them as weapons to hurt others or trip on them ourselves. It’s up to us.
The first step towards making more conscious choices begins with understanding and awareness of cognitive bias in our lives. Though Kahneman doesn’t believe we can ultimately overcome most biases, knowledge at least, brings light to the darkness. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by bias for years. But, I haven’t taken the time to really understand the impact of these brain elves. Nor have I yet learned how to effectively either short-circuit them or use them as positive tools. All that changes now.
Next Steps: A New Series
I’m planning a series of posts to explore various cognitive biases. Experts far smarter and more educated in these topics than I continue to debate this topic. What I do here won’t be definitive or publishable in Scientific American. Instead, I’ll provide examples of some of the common, useful, or interesting, cognitive biases from my own experiences. And I’ll use available research from books and articles including:
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (widely considered the seminal work on cognitive bias)
- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions by Dan Ariely
- Freakonomics and Think like a Freak both by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
- Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
These books, some explicitly about cognitive bias, others not, are useful tools for understanding the mind and how we engage with the world. Behavioral economics, neuroscience, and epigenetics* increasingly show the connections between the brain’s hardwiring and our resulting actions. With the help of the published work of experts in these fields, I’ll offer ideas on ways to cultivate awareness of bias operating in our lives.
Because I’m an informed novice rather than a true expert, I’ll approach bias from a practical rather than an academic point of view. I hope that works for you.
Why Do It?
The goal of these posts is as much to help me understand what the heck cognitive biases really are and how they affect my own life as it is to provide information to interested readers. A human brain thinking about how it does its own thinking is some kind of special mindf@#$&*. Because of that, I want and need as many perspectives from you as you’re willing to offer.
A Sampling of Upcoming Posts
- The Stories We Tell Ourselves: In this post, I’ll explore the different ways we talk and think about the events or emotions in our lives and the power of these patterns to effect our happiness, success, and relationships. Posting December 14, 2017
- Making a Stranger Your Friend: If you needed to move to a new house, would ten people show up to help? Would you let them help if they did? This post explores how the hardwiring in our brains impact how we build relationships, contribute in our communities, and get work done. Posting January 18, 2018
- Our Search for Certainty: Belief, Perception, and Truth: Humans like concreteness. Gray areas freak us out. If someone or something doesn’t fit into the model we’ve built for how the world should work, “fact” and “fiction” get all messed up. We believe fictions and eschew facts. We aren’t crazy, we’re human. Everyone does this. But should we? This post looks at the value and pitfalls of certainty. Posting February 15, 2018
I’ll be using this list of cognitive biases from Wikipedia as “source of truth” for the names and definitions. Check the list out and let me know if any particular bias stands out or interests you.
I hope you’ll join me for this series and share your views and ideas, too. The bias phenomenon impacts us all. It makes sense that we all try to tackle and understand it together.
*the science behind how we rewire our genome based on responses to the environment
Your turn: What cognitive biases are you most interested in? What would you like to learn from these posts?