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My Favorite Biases

Becoming aware and familiar with our biases is extremely difficult and extremely important – in the development of our character, how we relate to others, and how we find ourselves in this complex and changing world.

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Headshot of a black cat and a dog lying on the concrete floor side by side

I’m often quoting one of Shunryu Suzuki’s opening passages from Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind where he says:

“After some years we will die. If we just think that it is the end of our life, this will be the wrong understanding. But, on the other hand, if we think that we do not die, this is also wrong. We die, and we do not die. This is the right understanding.”

I’m drawn to this way of thinking and this way of describing life and death. And more broadly, I’m drawn to the attempt to cut through our usual biases, our narrow, one-sided “yes and no” thinking. At the same time I’m wondering if this proclivity reflects my bias!  Perhaps this is an example of “confirmation bias” – our tendency to agree with and support ideas that are aligned with what we already think or believe.

Becoming aware and familiar with our biases is extremely difficult and extremely important – in the development of our character, how we relate to others, and how we find ourselves in this complex and changing world. Meditation, mindfulness practice, and mindful leadership could be described as the practice of becoming familiar with our limited thinking and our biases – in how we see ourselves, our relationships, our work, core issues, and going back to the opening Shunryu Suzuki quote, how we view life and death.

Confirmation bias is a good place to start. We notice and pay attention and give weight to what matters to us, and hardly notice what we’ve decided isn’t as important. This influences how we listen, what we hear, and how we relate to our family members and those we work with.

In-group bias is particularly subtle and powerful. Some combination of our genetics and our environment leads us to separate those in our in-group from those not in our in-group. Our in-group can be those who look like us, or think like us, or adhere to the same religion, or even those who support the same sports team. Here is a short clip by David Eagleman demonstrating the power and perniciousness of the in-group/out-group bias.

The anchoring bias refers to our tendency to give extra attention or weight to information that we first receive. First impressions can color, mask, or highlight how we see other people or events in ways that distort clear thinking and action.

These are just three of many, many biases. Others include bias for optimism, for pessimism, the halo effect, and there are many more. For a deep dive in the art and science of understanding our biases, read Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  In an NPR/Hidden brain interview he is asked if studying and understanding biases results in him not being affected by them. Daniel Kahneman laughs at this question, and say no. These biases often have a way of being unconscious and live and act below the surface of conscious awareness.

What to do?

We are all beginners when it comes to bias.

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