In the late 90’s Neil Weinstein published a study (1) that examined the perceptions of smokers about the health risks of smoking. He found that individual smokers (who were surveyed) did believe smoking was a health hazard. However, those surveyed also believed that, as individuals, they were less likely to experience those hazards than other “other smokers.”
(Cue needle scratching on a record)
How is it possible for a smoker to think the affects of smoking are generally dangerous for all smokers, but unlikely to affect him personally? Well it’s pretty easy to do, actually. The individual smoker is caught up in– what psychologists call–a cognitive bias. A cognitive bias occurs when we latch on to a certain thought or way of thinking that skews our rationality. This kind of thinking allows us to do all sorts of bizarre stuff. For example, the smoker, who believes she’s bullet proof, has fallen into an “optimism bias.” She is overly optimistic about her own good health and believes she won’t be affected by the dangers.
Now before we go shaking our heads over such silly irrationality, heads up. You, and I, have our own cognitive biases. Everyone does. And–take a deep breath–our biases, whatever they may be, are potentially just as dangerous.
In fact, here’s a question for you:
Where do you think you might be susceptible to skewed thinking (biases)?
CLICK here to view a list of cognitive biases from a Wikipedia article.
So…What to do about our biases?
If we don’t understand and “own” our biases we can wander into all kinds of trouble. Beyond personal woes, a bias can diminish our ability to think and act ingeniously with other people. Our skewed thinking is often directed at other people and causes mistrust or friction to emerge between them and us. Further, entire tribes of people can fall into a collective bias. This can multiply the potential trouble and significantly reduce the possibility collective ingenuity.
Here are a few steps we can take to minimize the power of cognitive biases.
Admit We’ve Got Em
We need to admit that we are prone to biases. The unwillingness to admit skewed thinking is, um, well…another bias.
Name Them: Identify and name our biases in order to diminish their affects
Understanding our biases won’t take them away, but it will make us aware of our tendency toward skewed thinking. The first step in diminishing a bias is the ability to recognize when we’re using it.
Check a Potential Bias Against the Thinking of Others
Fortunately we don’ all have the same biases. And we can often spot a bias in someone else before we can see our own. This also means other people will likely notice one of mine before I see it. Because of this, we should “run our thinking by” trusted friends and colleagues, specifically asking them to listen for bias. By the way, that trusted friend or colleague has to be willing to tell us something we may not want to hear.
Be Humble in Our Pronouncements
Knowing that we have a propensity for skewed thinking, we should be humble in our declarations. Being overly confident in what we know is often the sign of bias. A willingness to be mistaken or change our thinking is a sign of wisdom.
Oppose Our Own Thinking
Before we make decisions or act, we may want to simply oppose our own thinking. A simple way to do this is to ask questions like:
- What is a different way (than mine) to think about this situation or information? (Explore other views)
- If I had to argue against my own thinking, what argument could I make? (Argue against your thinking)
- Has my current thinking led me to unwanted consequences in the past? (Look for a connection between your current way of thinking and past consequences)
- If someone else had these thoughts, would I see a bias in them? (Determine if you’re cutting yourself slack in a way you wouldn’t for others)
- Weinstein, N.D. (1998). “Accuracy of smokers’ risk perceptions”. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 20: 135-140.