I’m currently reading, You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, an d 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself , by David McRaney. The book explores the many cognitive biases that plague our thinking. A cognitive bias is a fallacy we apply to our thinking that allows us to justify beliefs and/or actions.
For example, the confirmation bias (a very common one) occurs when we pay attention only to information (about a given topic) that confirms what we already believe. Confirmation bias would also lead us to ignore or deny any information that is contrary to what we already think. Do you have a favorite cable news channel? If you do, ask yourself why.
Understanding Bias And Why It Matters
I have to admit, as I read McRaney’s book, I unfortunately and regularly repeat the phrase, “I do that one. Oh, I do that one too.” In one sense then the book is valuable because it helps me understand my biases and how they might be at play in any given situation. But knowing my biases is not enough. I also want to loosen the grip they have on my thinking. The implications to this second desire (loosening the grip on biases) has significant implications at work, home and everywhere else in between.
Jim, And A Very “Selfish” Confirmation Bias
Imagine Jim–a leader with strong confirmation bias toward selfishness. Jim believes that, in every situation, everyone is cut throat and looks out only for personal selfish interests. No matter the situation, that’s his bias. One of Jim’s direct reports (Bonnie) comes to him with a financial deficit in her department. The deficit could require Bonnie to terminate two full time positions. But she has a solution that could mitigate the terminations. Bonnie shares with Jim that she, and three of her managers, are willing to take pay cuts for six months to get through the difficulty and avoid terminations.
Upon hearing this idea, here’s the conversation that Jim and Bonnie have:
Jim: So you’re trying to get my job again, huh?
Bonnie: (nervous laugh) What are you talking about Jim?
Jim: Take a pay cut and be a hero. Make yourself look good in front of the whole company. You think I’m going to let you do that?
Bonnie: Jim. I don’t want your job. I want to save the people in my department.
Jim: Bonnie…everyone wants my job. And you better watch out. If you do this, those three managers will also look pretty good. Maybe everyone in your department will want one of them to replace you.
Yep, That Really Happened
Now you might think that no one would actually say what Jim said. And of course you would be wrong (maybe because of your own bias). In fact, I witnessed that very conversation a number of years ago in a coaching session with Jim and Bonnie (not their real names). When the real conversation occured, it seemed as bizarre to me then as you might think it now. But when you consider Jim’s confirmation bias about “universal selfishness,” it makes perfect sense. No matter what Bonnie would have said, Jim would have found a way to use her words to confirm his bias (which he did).
Understanding Is Good, But Not Enough
By this point you might be thinking, “Holy smokes, these cognitive biases are sneaky and could really affect me.” And you would be correct. In fact I would encourage you to read McRaney’s book to learn more about biases and how they are likely affecting you everyday. You can also see a list of them I provided here– in a different article.
Understanding cognitive biases is a good first step. As I mentioned earlier though, it’s not enough. If we want to loosen the grip of cognitive biases, we’ll need to interrupt our automatic thinking and shift to a more mindful approach. We’ll explore how to do that in part two of this article.
For now, check out a list of cognitive biases. Get familiar with the dozen or more common biases that creep up on us. Find your “go to” biases and watch for them as you make your way through your day.
Warning: If you look for cognitive biases, you will surely find them. Don’t look if you don’t want to see. And if you don’t think you have any cognitive biases, um…that’s your first one.