How to overcome Bias

You know it’s important to overcome bias. It matters. In conversation, in leadership, to improve team communication, and in life.

But, if you tried to look it up online, chances are you’re getting quite overwhelmed.

Take the wikipedia entry for cognitive bias for example, it’s got something like 100 different types of bias, and if you’re like me, chances are it will get confusing after a while.

Instead, what I personally find much more helpful in understanding and overcoming bias is knowing what lies behind it – once we figure out how we generate bias, it becomes clearer to figure out what we can do about it.

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So in this episode I’d like to share with you:

  • where bias come from, and
  • a brief strategy to help you understand what bias you may have and how to overcome them.

Where does bias come from?

The key reason for which bias exist at all has to do with how we interpret reality – more specifically how our brain does it.

Reality is extremely complex, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, and if you want to understand and analyze every single detail you can see, chances are that:

  • you’ll get nothing done apart from looking at things and
  • you’ll get some sort of sensory overload.

So to avoid this sensory overload, our brain has designed quite the strategy. Basically, whenever we see something, our brain asks itself a question first, which is: “Is what I’m seeing easy or difficult to understand?”

Whenever we see something, our brain asks itself a question first, which is: “Is what I’m seeing easy or difficult to understand?”

If it’s easy, that’s great, it means that our brain already knows what it’s looking at because it’s seen it before, or it connects to it. Take a dog for example: when you see one, you don’t need to analyze what it is. It’s a dog, you know it, no need to put in extra work.

If instead it’s difficult, it means that our brain needs to put in some more work to understand it. This is for example what happens when you’re studying something new and your brain needs to process all that information.

Now, when our brain thinks something is easy to grasp, it usually means that we’re used to it, we’ve seen it a number of times or it’s simply displayed clearly. That’s the basics of commercials as well: if you see a brand clearly displayed on billboards all around town, you’ll understand it and remember it – which by the way is exactly what the advertiser wants.

Our brain likes things that are easy to understand

Key point here is that whenever we see something we can easily understand, it also feels effortless, it feels good, it feels right and it feels true – and our brain really likes to be in this situation vs. having to put in more work.

It likes it to a point that whenever it sees something difficult, it will also do its best to make it easier to process, connecting it to what it already knows – for example it will try to connect it to our belief system, point of view, cultural upbringing or information we acquired recently.

For example, if you’re traveling in a far away land where you don’t even speak the language and stumble upon a celebration of sorts, your brain will do its absolute best to find some way to explain it based on information it has available and jump to a conclusion about what that celebration is.

Of course what you know and have stored in your memory is completely unrelated to what you are seeing, so it holds zero value when it comes to understanding what that celebration is, but that instinct is so strong that you’ll be contented with the interpretation you give yourself and possibly won’t look for more input – that would be extra work and our brain doesn’t like it.

And that is how we get to bias: we rely on whatever information we can use to easily make sense of what we see, and jump to a conclusion on that basis.

We jump to a conclusion based on what we already know, not on what we are actually seeing.

Short summary:

In other words:

  • we don’t judge reality objectively, but subjectively
  • out of what we see, we tend to notice only what we like or what we know and jump to our own conclusion
  • we behave on the basis of that conclusion

And as I’m sure you’ve figured out: if our conclusion is incorrect, chances are that our behavior also won’t be. This also includes how we communicate with others: if we don’t have a proper objective understanding of the other person, we’ll stumble on bias somewhere while we interact with them. This is valid for remote communication as well.

Now, what’s fascinating for me is here is that to overcome this barrier, all we need to do is hack the mechanism.

In other words: if the issue is how our brain relies on information that it already possess to explain reality, all we need to do is feed our brain pieces of information that will force it to take a more objective perspective.

And the best way to do so, is telling our brain to watch out for bias in specific situations.

How do you overcome bias?

And at this point I’d like to share with you the wonderful resource that is project implicit, of Harvard University.

Project implicit is a series of scientifically proven bias tests. All of them take anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes, and I encourage you to take them on a regular basis.

Mind you, you may not like the results, because you could find out that you are biased in ways that you didn’t think you were. I’ll share with you the results of two of the tests I’ve taken.

First of all, I’ve found out that I’m basically unbiased when it comes to ethnicity – meaning that I can count that I will treat whoever is in front of me equally, regardless of ethnic traits. I didn’t particularly doubt that I would, but it’s nice to have an external confirmation about it.

What I found however, is that I’m extremely biased in favor of attractive people vs unattractive ones. Of course I’m not happy about it, I don’t like hearing that about myself. You can come up with any excuse, like blaming media or tv  n my upbringing – but in the end that’s all they are: excuses. 

Project Implicit allows you to test your own bias

Yet, I’m still glad I know this about myself, because it enables me to do something about it. Now I know that if I’m talking to an attractive or unattractive person, my bias could be at play and I can inform my brain to put in more effort in this situation.

Without it, instead, I’d still assume I’m perfectly unbiased, and be none the wiser about how wrong my interpretation of reality and my behaviors could be.

Wrapping it up:

  • Whenever we see something that’s hard for us to understand, we tend to associate it to what we already know to make sense of it.
  • What we already know may be completely unrelated to what we see, so the conclusion we reach may be incorrect.
  • If we behave on the basis of an incorrect understanding of reality, we’ll stumble into bias.
  • The best way to overcome your own bias is to know 
    • where your starting point is
    • in what situations you are more likely to be biased
  • A great resource is project implicit

If you take a few tests over time, and keep loosely attached to this idea, you’ll discover a few areas you are biased in that you may not have been aware of – and that’s the first step in getting rid of it in your everyday life.

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