How recognizing your cognitive biases will lead to a better life.
All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is.
Do you want to live in a world of truth or fiction? Reality or fantasy?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it?
If we want to be happy and to achieve our goals, we need to see the world as it is.
How are we going to get that promotion if we can’t see what we need to do to get it? How are we going to find a lasting partner if we can’t see what has worked and not worked in our past relationships? How are we going to write that book if we can’t see what’s holding us back?
If we don’t see the world how it is, we’re delusional, we’re blind, and we’re hopeless. We’re going to fight the wrong fights and put too much effort into achieving the wrong ends.
But, if you think you see the world as it is, think again.
You have no idea how biased you are
Sure, we think we can recognize bias when we see it, like when a referee calls a game in favor of one team over the other or when a boss asks for ideas but dismisses all but her own.
Unfortunately, most of the time, we are completely unaware that biases are acting on our lives.
From a biological perspective, cognitive biases probably gave us a survival advantage. For example, some biases, called heuristics, are essentially shortcuts in thinking that allow us to make quick decisions. Long ago, this would have helped us to survive when we were under constant physical threat.
Today, however, our threats more often come in the form of complex technological and social problems, rather than in the form of large predators. In our world, biases hurt us rather than help us.
Amazingly, Wikipedia lists 200 biases that routinely impact all of us.
Does that concern you?
Because if you care about your happiness or achieving your goals, it is precisely these biases that are going to hold you back.
They are going to prevent you from seeing exactly what you need to see, like opportunities, obstacles, friends, enemies, and other options.
Think about it like this: having a bias means that you are literally blind to something useful about reality.
Are you starting to see why this is a problem?
Doubt, doubt, doubt
So, what do you do with the knowledge that you are biased?
Well, I’ll tell you what you don’t do: don’t think this happens to everyone except you.
Sorry, if you’re human, you’re biased. Accept it. At least then you can deal with the consequences.
If you want to be happy or to accomplish your goals, you need to start seeing your biases. Don’t stick your head in the sand.
The next thing you need to do is question yourself. About what? Everything.
Question every assumption, decision, thought, and emotion.
Unfortunately, this isn’t easy.
Think about the last time you got into an argument with your partner. Were you able to see the problem from their side?
Think about the last time you heard someone talk about a political view that is contrary to yours. Were you able to find the truth in what they were saying?
When we are invested in a matter, we find it painfully difficult to be impartial, yet this is exactly when our impartiality matters the most. If we can’t see the truth of a situation, we will fail to make good decisions about things that matter to us. And if we can’t make good decisions about things that matter to us, we miss out on opportunities to be happy and to achieve our goals.
Have you heard of confirmation bias? It causes us to seek information that validates what we already believe to be true. As a result of this bias, you will not see the entire picture, which will inhibit your ability to arrive at the best solution.
It is essential to recognize the laziness inherent in our thinking. The next time you are trying to resolve a problem, try to play Devil’s Advocate with yourself. This simple exercise might help you to counteract this bias and see the bigger picture.
Your mind is not what it seems
What I hope you take away from this post is that, as a human, your ability to make rational decisions is fundamentally flawed.
But hope is not lost! All you need is a little bit of doubt.
When doubt is inserted into your mind, you will see that you are more curious about how you could be wrong.
As Aristotle said, the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
You might hate the idea that you’re biased but remember that it’s also not really your fault. Our brains are just naturally wired this way. There’s no use fighting it, it’s just the way it is.
People that are successful in any area of life embrace this knowledge. They question their assumptions and seek input from others when making decisions. They know their brains alone are not enough, so they lean on other people to provide perspective.
If you’re concerned that you won’t notice when you’re acting biased, mindfulness meditation may help you to identify these situations. Mindfulness won’t help you resolve the problem, but it might provide you with the critical insight that you’re blind to something about a situation.
So, what will you do with this knowledge?
Will you do nothing?
Or will you be a little less sure of yourself, and in doing so open up the opportunity to find happiness and success?
I sincerely hope it’s the latter.