You're So Biased
Updated: May 7, 2019
Have you ever been told ‘You’re so biased’? How did it feel? Have you called someone else out for ‘being biased’? Particularly biased against you? I would predict that both of these situations do not make you feel great. Being labelled as ‘biased’ or feeling ‘biased against’ makes you feel bad. However, at some point in our lives we all will expericed biases and being biased.
But, have you wondered why biases exist? Why do they happen? Are biases good or bad? Neuroscience can shed some light on the issue of biases, and it is important for us all to understand why biases happen, how they impact us and those around us, and what we can do about it.
Your teenage brain is glorious - if you didn’t know that already. Neuroscience has shown that the brain goes through critical periods of growth and development - while in the womb, the first year of life, and the early years, right into adulthood. What scientists have more recently discovered is that the brain undergoes a 'secret mission' of change during the period between the ages of 12 to 19 years, that is truly unique.
There are two main types of cognitive biases - intrinsic and extrinsic. An intrinsic bias is one that you are not aware of. Like when you draw a sunshine and typically color it yellow without even thinking. An extrinsic bias is something you are aware of, like not liking cats.
The prevalence of biases is wide spread. Common as pie, and for good reason, let me explain. We all have multiple biases that we use every single day. Researchers have identified over 200 different types of cognitive biases. Yes, 200 and counting. So, chances are you have at least a few.
Your brain is making multiple decisions all the time, and it is advantageous to your survival to make them as quickly as possible. Your brain uses heuristics (or quick rules of thumbs) to make rapid fire decisions, often without your awareness. Your brain needs to decide rapidly if something zooming down a street is a danger or not. Your brain has a set of biases towards fast moving objects that it associates with the concept of roads. These 'biases' enable you come to the conclusion, subconsciously – that it’s likely a car; and that you should not run in front of it! The car and road example is a classic biased brain situation. Your brain made a very rapid decision based on a set of preconceived ideas, that likely saved your life.
Not convinced? Let me give you an another example of a ‘biased brain’ situation. You make plans to meet a friend at Starbucks, and they walk in with another person they are talking to. Your first assumption or bias, is that this 'other person' is likely your friend’s friend, or at the very least someone they know. Turns out they when you check in with your friend, the other person had just been asking your friend the time and the two don’t know each other. The assumption or bias you had made is reasonable - most of us don’t start a conversation with a stranger. Your brain has learnt over the years, when and with whom you start a conversation. Your past experiences have taught you yp don't typically start conversations with someone you don’t know. So, it made perfect sense for your brain to make the assumption that the 'other person' was a 'friend' or 'known by' your friend.
The downside of rapid decision making, and quick judgements of a situation is that it leads to errors of judgement, or what psychologists call "cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are the formal name for your everyday ‘snap judgements’. Your first reaction to someone, something or some situation. Remember that all the thinking, perception, and memory that your glorious teenage brain does every day comes under the neuroscience umbrella of ‘cognitive processes’. The term ‘bias’ is tagged on, as these judgements may or may not be correct. Neuroscience has extensively researched the origin and behavioral adaptation (i.e. why do human brains' make these snap judgements) of cognitive bias.
Your brain likes to be in a state of congruence, in another words’ in a state where the information it’s processing fits in to your existing beliefs. The current explanation is that processing new and inconsistent information take a great deal of effort for the brain. As such the brain is continually looking to confirm its existing beliefs, or disregarding information that contradicts it. The impact of these biases is that they frequently cause you to infer information to help you make decisions from the wrong sources.
Impact of Bias
The brain needs stereotypes to help it make rapid decision, it's an innate ability and we cannot get rid of it. Self-awareness and being mindful of your biases is the most important step in becoming a more emotionally intelligent person.
A discussion on emotional intelligence or EQ will take place in another blog post, but it is different from IQ or Intelligence Quotient.
If another person does something that you might disagree with or think is bad, try to remmeber that they may have good reason for doing what they did. If you can’t think of a reason why someone would do what they did, perhaps ask them in a way that is gentle and not accusatory.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are only looking to confirm your existing beliefs about someone or something, try to be objective. Especially in a situation where you are making a negative inference about someone, try and see it from their perspective. If possible objectively consider what is happening in a situation, not just your positive contribution to it.
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