Wired into our psyche are firm beliefs (biases) of the world that we live in, they are the foundation of our perception of reality. On last check, there are over 170 different cognitive biases, (awesome graphic and article). Our biases exist to help when there’s too much information for us to process, we need to act quickly, there’s a lot of sensory input and there’s not enough meaning. Biases are so deeply ingrained in our neurological development that studies have shown it takes an incredible amount of effort to re-train our brain from biases we don't even realise we have.
As we go about our lives we visually scan the environment to confirm what we already believe. As long as the world confirms our beliefs, we don't question it. In part, our biases act as a defence mechanism, when we understand the world it creates a feeling of safety.
Confirmation biases works simply enough. If we believe “people aren’t trustworthy”, any behaviour which is an example of that resonates with us to create a confirming view of our reality. If we believe “people don’t really like me”, we fail to notice all the positive interactions that happen and any negative interaction solidifies as our strongest memory of the day. We are constantly scanning for confirmation rather than conflict.
Our confirmation biases are typically emotionally rooted. Our brain can’t process the overload of information and stimulus we experience, so instead, we create memories which consolidate information we see fit as necessary to remember.
Our biases help us process information we want to store into long term memory. It’s not all doom and gloom, confirmation biases can work in a positive way. A bias of “I’m pretty easy going” would create a reality where that’s true and you view the world as a place in which your highly agreeable nature is highlighted and you find it hard to remember times in which you weren’t easy breezy.
A lot of the time our biases can go unnoticed and are pain-free. They do have the potential to cause problems through relationship conflict or argument. For example, when our view of reality is completely different to our partners, they way we see ourselves is different to how our partner sees us, when a friend presents a political view which makes no sense but they have ample information to support it. The inability to interpret our biases as biases and not fact can be at the foundation of conflict.
How do we counteract it?
1. A good way to mediate through a situation is by checking in with others. This is much easier said than done. In order for this approach to work, you need to be open to an opposing view and to the fact that there’s another way to perceive the experience. Being mindful of who you talk to and that you engage in active listening is also key. It isn’t an argument or an activity that should turn into conflict, but rather an opportunity to learn. It’s going to get uncomfortable, but in order to understand an issue fully it is important to hear alternative perspectives.
2. If asking others is too confrontational, playing devil’s advocate with yourself is another useful strategy for addressing your biases. Ask questions, try to examine different ways of seeing the situation. How could it be different? What would someone have to do to see the situation in the opposite light? How would someone reason through a completely oppositional view?
3. Another useful strategy is meditation. Meditation reworks your neural pathways. It provides you the space to notice how agitated you are by an oppositional view. Through a meditation process you can bring awareness to your bias. Meditation isn’t a state of happiness, rather the ability to notice your state in daily life.
We all have our biases. We have our past traumas and beliefs of how the world is. In order to break out of those repeated patterns of behaviour, there has to be an awareness. Developing awareness is challenging, we have created biases to tolerate reality with more ease. Awareness creates an unpacking of sorts, it addresses that which we can’t handle. For most of us, we tolerate our own biases and sometimes harmful world beliefs much better than we realize. We create a normality that sometimes causes us more harm than good. Understanding what our biases are, where they come from and how we choose to move forward with them is deep work.