“Biases: Where do they come from?” – From Ask Anya mails

Ask Anya MailFollowing post: Biases: Where do they come from?

“I’ve been interested with cognitive biases and misconceptions for some time already, reading all available material on the subject, including your blog.  However, I noticed that just knowing about biases doesn’t really help to get rid of them. Last week I was talking to a friend about politics and was suddenly faced with a sad reality of failing to see through “Halo effect” bias. What happened was that as we were discussing with my friends a politician who recently achieved infamy by openly demonstrating unwanted behaviors in his private life, I made a statement that someone who behaves this way in his social life has no chance of filling his office properly. It seemed logical to me when I said it, but when my friends pointed to a fact that there is no known correlation between someone’s personal and professional life, I immediately understood that my statement was caused by “halo effect”. This situation made me wondering:  is there any benefit in learning about biases, if it only helps you to understand what you already did wrong? I know that my question is not directly related to Management, but as your blog’s tagline is “Life without Biases”, I just thought that I’ll ask anyway. “

Well, living in Toronto, it wasn’t hard for me to guess which politician you were talking about, so let’s try to consider the issue from a more general rather than specific point of view, in order not to get tangled in political controversies 🙂

Actually, I think that your interest in Biases was beneficial for you in this situation, because without any knowledge of what “Halo Effect” is, you would have retained your biased opinion, while having an unnecessary fight with your friends. The reason why it’s so hard for people to argue about political or religious issues is exactly because they are simply rejecting biased opinions, without being interested in hearing the other side. In a paradox way, not wanting to hear biased opinions from others is a completely logical way when you have all reasons to be sure that they are biased. The only problem here is that if they see us the same way (usually also being right in doing this) – no common ground could be found. So the very fact that you were able to immediately stop yourself at the very moment you suspected a bias is the best proof of the advantage that learning about biases provides. Actually, this is the exact description of Bias Control technique called “Halt! order”, where you teach yourself not to proceed any further after recognizing a bias in your own judgment.

Of course, as with any technique, there needs to be training. If we were able to train ourselves both in recognizing and in dealing with biases, our general knowledge of bias types would have turned into real ability. Regretfully, no comprehensive training for dealing with biases was introduced up until now.

There are several reasons for that.

  1. The concept of Biases was introduced by psychologists not necessarily as something to be influenced in any way by our actions. As many social scientists tend to envy physicists in regard to their quest to uncover the truth about reality, they introduced cognitive biases as a kind of physical law: apples tend to fall down rather than up and people tend to be biased because of their evolution. As it usually goes with science, they then proceeded to mapping the phenomenon at the greatest possible scope, creating a list of more than a hundred biases and misconceptions, somewhat commendable from an academic point of view, but completely unhelpful in any practical use. This perceived impracticality frames the issue as something nice to know, but not something to spend time on training for.
  2. As everything related to thinking naturally falls into “soft skills” category, even professionals whose main job is to think (such as managers, but also doctors, analysts, teachers and many others) see it as secondary to the more tangible professional skills. For example, in Management we teach people Decision-making and Risk Management, but do not train them to overcome biases, which are a natural risk in those spheres. As even the people who need it most do not train in Bias Control, what could be said about others?
  3. The previous two points influence the third and the last one, which is the place biases took in the popular culture. After amazing books by Dan Arieli, Steven Levitt  and many others, the issue became famous, producing its own fan club, so to speak. People meet and discuss biases, tell war stories of how they caught their bosses or spouses being biased and compete in who know more biases. As it goes with most fan clubs, the goal here is not to train and become better, but to spend time together and have fun. Thus, the people who are most interested in the issue of Biases are the exact people who prevent any comprehensive      training from being created, because they shift the focus to a different place.

As long as there is no training out there that could have made us less biased, my best advice to you is this: after catching yourself being biased, try to proceed further by thinking what a really unbiased opinion would sound like (not a politically correct, but an unbiased one!).  Then try to compare the impact both opinions could have on your life if put into action. Putting the biases into practical context as soon as possible is a good start for knowing how to deal with them. Good luck!

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