A lot of unhappiness and suffering stems from our misperception of the people and world around us. These perceptions tell us the story or stories that can limit us and cause flawed decision making or set us free. A lot of the misperceptions come from false beliefs about ourselves and how we relate to the world. I’ve talked about how eliminating limiting beliefs can create real change here and here. It’s simply amazing the results you can get from changing one or two beliefs that you didn’t even know you had. So what about the biases that stem from these beliefs? It’s a good idea to explore biases so that we can understand them and work to dismantle them. These biases of cognition are interesting because they seem to have a large scope and far reaching grasp. They paint the way you see the world and are so much a part of your lens that its really difficult to recognize them unless you know what you are looking for and even then can be a significant challenge. “A cognitive bias . . . is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking — a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution, and miscalculations.” Says George Dvorsky. Joshua Waitzskin, the chess prodigy Finding Bobby Fischer was written about and author of The Art of Learning was recently on Tim Ferris’ new podcast. One of the many things Waitzskin does is coaches the top of the top performers in the finance world (as Tim described, master of the Universe type folks). One of the main things he does in his coaching is helps them to recognize and deconstruct their cognitive biases. This ups their game big time. I believe it can benefit us and help us up our games too.
We are going to start out with one that you may have heard of. Good old confirmation bias, in my words, is the tendency for folks to remember, seek out, see, and believe information that confirms what they already believe or presume to know. It is so subtle that it is nearly impossible to recognize it when its happening with you, especially if you aren’t looking for it. It is an information processing bias. We actually process new information differently based on what we already believe. If you read up on some of the studies done – it’ll blow your mind. For example, people will actually hear and interpret information about political candidates differently based on which candidates they favor. So the fact that they like the candidate in the first place will make what they hear from that candidate more likable and what they hear from their opponents more flawed.
Bias in Your Brain
Researchers have even used MRI’s to measure brain activity during these types of experiments. What they have witnessed is that when people are being exposed to information that contradicts what they believe to be true about their favorite candidate, the emotional center of their brain lights up like Las Vegas. This surge seems to wash out the cognitive dissonance and puts the person back in their comfort zone. Not only that but even if we are careful to be neutral in our information gathering and processing, still our memories go in and select based upon our biases.
This bias hurts and hinders us in more ways than we can imagine. We repeat behaviors that take away from our progress in all aspects of life. Do you find yourself in the same rut time and time again? Or perhaps you continue destructive behaviors and are not sure why it’s difficult to stop? You feel like, or know you are being rational and intelligent but why is it all still happening? It is the biases that guide your decision making processes and the very way in which you view the world. Now the question that comes to mind is should we focus more on the processes or the biases?
If we know we are processing reality in a bias way when searching, processing and remembering information, we must just surrender the idea that we are not biased, that we are going to be bent towards a specific paradigm. I think having this in the forefront of our minds will keep us vigilant in our pursuit of knowledge or truth. Where this will become tricky is in deeply held beliefs. Those in which you are inextricably intertwined with what you believe in. Those where our sense of identity belongs to the belief.
Identity and Bias
What do you identify with most strongly? What do you feel as a part of the core of who you are? These may be the indicators of where your strongest and deepest biases are held. Where any new information will not be considered with equal weight, perceived equally, or noticed at all.
One small exercise you can do is to put out your feelers for biases. Ask your self the question: “What are my deepest associations and what biases spring from them?” Then go about your day and your life. When you are reading your Facebook feed or listening to a conversation about a hotly debated topic, when you feel that surge inside of you wanting to leap to defend a point of view or an idea, or wanting to squash another – stop and let yourself witness that feeling. Trace it back to its origins in that moment – what are you really wanting to defend? Is it that idea, or is it your identity as linked to the idea? It is usually always the latter. Herein are your biases, and your awareness and attention on them takes away the power they once over you, and puts it directly into your hands.