A Crash Course in Bias: Why You Think the Way You Do, and How to Change It
Say you’re walking to a meeting. The place you’re going is 3 blocks ahead, but on the opposite side of the street. Where do you decide to cross? At the beginning? At the end? Somewhere in the middle? You may make any decision, but whatever the outcome is, it’s probably not something you consciously thought about. For instance, maybe you crossed over after 2 blocks, because that’s the way you’ve always gone. Or maybe you decided to cross over right away, because your coworkers were walking that direction. No matter what you chose, you still got to your meeting at the same time, and the decision faded into the background almost immediately.
We face thousands and thousands of these little decisions every day, and most of them are entirely unconscious. We simply don’t have the time or the brain space to deliberately think out every choice that comes our way. Instead, our brain makes the decision for us, based on a series of biases that we’ve cultivated over the course of our lives.
So what is a bias?
Bias is widely perceived to be a bad thing, as in the case of racial or sexual bias. And some are, but all that’s required to make a belief into a bias is for it to be unreasonable. That can be as simple as “I like the taste of Pepsi better than Coke. I can’t tell you why, I just do.” It’s not a bad thing to like Pepsi better than Coke, or vice versa! But the point is that you can’t explain your reasoning, which makes it a bias.
Ok...if it’s not a bad thing, why should I care?
In all of those thousands and thousands of decisions your brain makes for you every day, many of them are totally inconsequential. But some of them could actually be affecting your life, and those around you, and maybe not for the better. It’s the same with how other people’s biases could be affecting you. But don’t panic. If you understand the biases behind your decisions, you can decide for yourself (hopefully not unconsciously) if they need to change.
The list of biases recognized by psychology is CRAZY long, but worry not! I’ve put together a list of 5 of the top biases that might be affecting you and your decisions.
1. Status Quo Bias
Didn’t I just make a HSM reference a couple of weeks ago? I’ll spare you here. Status-quo bias essentially means that your brain doesn’t like change. To avoid that change, it will cause you to make decisions that will keep things as they are, whether it’s keeping you from losing that 10 lbs or from quitting a job that you absolutely loathe.
2. Negativity Bias
Think about the last compliment you received. Unless it was a particularly unexpected situation, you probably don’t remember it all that well, if you even remember it at all. Now think about the last insult or criticism you received. It’s probably burned into your brain, right? I know I can still think of insults I received in grade school. The reason for that is your brain is wired to give more weight to negative input than to positive input. In ancient times, it helped us survive, but now it often just gives us the belief that the world is more full of bad things than good.
3. Projection Bias
This is likely the most deeply buried of the biases we’ll talk about, because it requires a bit of inception. All of us spend our entire lives with our own sets of feelings, experiences, and biases, that it’s extremely difficult to take ourselves outside of that mindset and imagine what it’s like inside someone else’s decision-making process. So instead of doing that, your brain makes the assumption, however unlikely, that the person in question has the same decision-making process as you do, and will therefore come to the same conclusion as you have in a particular event. This can lead to confusion or frustration if they don’t.
4. The Bandwagon Effect
We’ve all seen the bandwagon effect in motion, whether we realize it or not. For example, I have a vivid memory of seeing a fight start at school for the first time. I didn’t even know it was a fight. I couldn’t see the people in the middle of the crowd that had gathered. But before I knew it, I was in the middle of the crowd, yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight!” My mom asked me later why I had done it, and I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t know, I just did what everyone else had done. We like to think, as adults, that we’re less susceptible to this type of thing, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can experience the bandwagon effect on everything from your city’s sports teams to your political party.
5. Confirmation Bias
I saved this one for last, because not only is it the one I’m personally most passionate about, but it’s also the most prevalent type in the internet age. Put simply, confirmation bias causes you to seek out information that confirms an already held belief, while rejecting anything that challenges that belief. We’ve heard a lot about confirmation bias in the last year or so, though maybe in different terms, because the internet and social media has made it easier than ever to immerse yourself in your particular bubble. Your friends and family likely have similar worldviews to you, and therefore write and share things that confirm your own worldview. If you happen to come across something that challenges your worldview, it’s easy to dismiss it as “fake news” or just ignore it entirely. The internet gives us infinite choices, which means more of those choices are left to your biases to take over.
What does all this mean then? What do I do?
To sum it up, your brain is LAZY. Even if you’re not trying to, it’s much easier to go along with what your friends are doing, or what worked before, even if you know it’s not right or true. The best way to combat any kind of laziness is, of course, to get some exercise! The way to exercise your brain is to think critically. If you make a decision and you’re not sure why, don’t just move on to the next one, figure out what got you to that decision. Learn your biases, and they won’t be able to control you.