Cognitive Bias Series: Our Search for Certainty

by Angela Noel

February 15, 2018

A guy in a ski mask and dolphin shorts ran by me as I walked my dog through our neighborhood park. While it wasn’t strange that a man would be wearing tight nylon shorts in the early 80s, a fellow wearing a full ski mask in Southern California in springtime with his penis flopping out against his thigh definitely stood out.

I hightailed it home and told my mom what had happened right away. I don’t remember the sequence of events exactly. But I do remember my dad grabbing a stocking cap, pulling it low over his eyes and heading out to the park to see if he could find the guy.

My dad acted on the instinct to protect his little girl. But in my nine-year-old brain, seeing my dad in what looked a little like the cap (without the mask) that the penis-waving fellow had worn, confusion reigned. Could the man I saw have been my father? Also, could the fact that I saw a man’s penis in the park make me pregnant?

Both of these questions plagued me, and though embarrassed, I asked my mom for the truth. “No, honey. Your dad was right here. He’d never do that. And no, you can’t get pregnant from seeing a man’s penis.”

Phew.

April and Angela
Here’s me and our dog, April, playing in the backyard. No ski masks in sight.

Just like when my son thought I was a gun-toting criminal, my own younger-self struggled with what I had perceived versus what I believed to be true. I struggled to discern fact from all the noise.

Now, as an adult, I have more information, more concrete ideas of what is and is not true. That sounds like a good thing. But in fact it could be an even bigger problem.  Because I think I know the answer already, maybe I won’t ask those critical questions. Worse, sometimes I don’t want to know the real answer.

Those elves, our cognitive biases, are at it again. Continue reading “Cognitive Bias Series: Our Search for Certainty”

Performing Radical Acts of Empathy in 2018

By Angela Noel

January 4, 2018

In 2018 I want to perform radical acts of empathy.

I first heard the phrase, “reading is a radical act of empathy” at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis during an open house for writers.  Months later I heard author Kelly Barnhill, winner of 2017 Newberry Medal for her book The Girl Who Drank the Moon say the same thing on a children’s podcast, Brain’s On. “Reading is an act of radical empathy” she said, ” . . . It’s a reminder that my own point of view is not the only one . . . We have to be able to be another person . . . so we can stop being such selfish jerks.” Continue reading “Performing Radical Acts of Empathy in 2018”

Cognitive Bias Series: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

by Angela Noel

December 14, 2017

Stories are the software of our brains. They tell us how to act, what’s important, and what to do when something goes wrong. But every software program has bugs.

For example,  I recently stood in line with my son and husband at an amusement park. My son grabbed my arm. ”Mom,” he said, “remember that time you took a gun to the airport and you were almost arrested?” Continue reading “Cognitive Bias Series: The Stories We Tell Ourselves”

Cognitive Bias Series: Taming the Elves in Our Brains

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. Continue reading “Cognitive Bias Series: Taming the Elves in Our Brains”