People are filled with all kinds of biases; we are hard wired to have them. We tend to see and feel our own points of view strongly and we are particularly one-sided. We seek out information to preserve our opinions and beliefs which cause us to interpret situations, problems, conversations, non-verbal cues, etc. through the lens of our biases. And many times, these preconceptions cause us to be irrational, especially when our emotions are involved. Unfortunately, we don’t understand that bias drives everything we do therefore we don’t challenge the rationality behind our thoughts and feelings. We get stuck in the mindset of “because I thought it, it must be true.”
There are dozens of cognitive biases; here’s a list of them and to be honest, it’s overwhelming to read. I like to think of myself as a fairly rational person and after WikiLists enlightened me, I could see all kinds of ways my brain plays tricks on me. Bummer.
I strongly desire to make sound, rational decisions and I am sure you do, too.
So what are some ways to overcome biases? Here are some tactics I’ve been trying and they are proving to be helpful albeit difficult. Your brain is powerful, fast, and excellent at fooling you into thinking it knows best, even when it doesn’t.
When I find myself getting upset, complaining or judging, I stop and challenge myself to come up with three alternatives stories besides the one I am telling myself. For example, someone snaps at you in a meeting and you tell yourself that she did it on purpose to embarrass you…to put you in your place. Alternative stories: 1) she was up all night with her three year old and is tired and at her wits end from lack of sleep; 2) she is feeling the stress of a tight deadline and her boss just added more to her plate so she is frustrated but it has nothing to do with you; 3) three people were late for the meeting; she is upset that we waited for them and she is frustrated with the whole meeting. The purpose of doing this exercise is to help your brain see that there are dozens of possibilities as to why something happened. Rather than jump to a conclusion, don’t take it personally, ask questions, and pursue understanding.
Seek Different Perspectives
As the Polish proverb tells us, “two minds are better than one” and in the case of overcoming biases, this is absolutely true. Asking for perspective can help you see what might be hiding in a blind spot. Having trouble with your boss? Ask a few co-workers what they see and ask how they’ve developed a better relationship with him (just be sure you don’t turn it into a compliant session). Feel passionate about an idea? Share it with others and ask them what you are missing (just be sure you don’t get sucked into group think). Different points of view will help you deepen your understanding and recognize when you are creating an incomplete picture of a situation or idea.
Solve Problems as a Team
Often times, decisions are made quickly without understanding the unintended consequences. This is especially true for people like me where optimism bias runs deep. Therefore it’s best to sit down with a group of people and start asking questions. Here are three that can kick start the process: 1) Why are we doing it this way? 2) What if we did it a different way? 3) What would these different ways look like? Identify the options, list the pros and cons of each, and make sure that everyone voices their opinion. Remember, this is a process so treat it like one and try to keep the emotion out of it. The goal is to challenge yourself and team to overcome biases and make sound decisions, not create winners and losers.
Search for Counter Evidence
Another highly effective way to reduce bias is to actively seek out counter evidence. Counter evidence is information that is opposite of what you believe or think. Humans are experts in confirmation bias (the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions) and you have to actively work to avoid this trap. Luckily we have Google so you have all kinds of opinions, news, and theories at your fingertips, making it easy to find counter evidence. You should also have candid discussions with those who think differently than you; just remember the point is to be curious, not defend your viewpoint or change minds so go into this exercise open-mined.
Play Devil’s Advocate
Playing devil’s advocate means you purposefully raise an objection or take an opposing viewpoint for the sake of challenging biases. You don’t have to believe what you are saying; you are only debating in order to explore other possibilities. Playing this role is not easy nor is it fun but it is necessary in order to ensure good decision making. Practice doing it on your own ideas and then take it into team settings; many people find it off-putting and it takes finesse to effectively challenge others’ ideas without making them feel like they have to defend their viewpoints.
Bias is part of everything we think and do as humans. We believe we have control of our thoughts and feelings but in reality, these hard-wired tendencies manipulate us into making irrational and erroneous decisions. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely states, “We usually think of ourselves as sitting the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires—with how we want to view ourselves—than with reality.” While you’ll never be able to rid yourself of bias, self-awareness is key. The more you understand yourself and where your thoughts and feelings come from, the more you will understand why you do the things you do. In turn, challenging these thoughts and beliefs can provide deeper insight and create opportunities to make better decisions.
As always, thank you for reading! Please comment, like and share if you are so inclined; I greatly appreciate it.
P.S. If you want to read a life changing book on this subject check out “Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World” by Al Pittampalli. It changed my life.