Back in the discussion on habits I mentioned how a significant percentage of our decisions are rarely thought about. A scary corollary to that is that how we think and what we believe is also subject to shortcuts, called cognitive biases. As we observe processes, examine our current reality, and search for truth, it is important to understand and recognize these biases.
The most common and well-known bias is confirmation bias. Basically this is our desire to believe what we want to believe, to the extant that we consciously or subconsciously distort or interpret information to fit our preconceptions. We can also seek out sources of information that align with our bias, ignoring non-confirming data.
An example of this is in politics, leading to why the two major parties in the U.S. are moving more toward the extremes and away from the center. Even though the number of information sources has exploded over the last couple decades, people on the right of the spectrum consume news geared toward them, because they feel it is correct – it fits their bias. The same on the left. This has occurred to such an extent that the heroes of each party, say Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, probably wouldn’t be welcome in their parties today.
A second form of bias is loss aversion, where researchers such as psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have found that we’re twice as likely to try to avoid a loss than go after a gain. In effect we’re naturally risk averse, which is perhaps great for our survival as a species but not so much as we try to create organizational change and improvement.
A third form of bias is conformity bias, also known as groupthink or “when in Rome…” We naturally don’t like to stand out in a crowd and will go along and agree with a group, even if we know the information is incorrect.
Fourth is survivorship bias, where we like to believe and focus on the tiny fraction of people that are successful, ignoring the far greater numbers that have failed. An example of this is our fascination with and attraction to get-rich-quick gurus, the top ten of this and that from the likes of Steve Jobs, and so forth. We find it easy to ignore, or not even understand, that every path is unique and what works for one person may not for another, for a multitude of reasons.
Finally, and common in the business world, is anchoring, or first impressions. This form of bias occurs because we subconsciously give the first piece of information we receive on a topic more relevance and weight than follow-on information. This is why public relations companies find it very important to get their story out first, and why it is so difficult to change minds after the fact – even if the subsequent information is more accurate. Perhaps also consider love at first sight?
So knowing that we’re susceptible to these biases, what can we do? Be mindful and present. Observe your thoughts and ask validating questions. Why do you believe this way? What are the arguments against your opinion? Review the forms of bias and honestly try to determine if they might be in play.