Humans are biased. Whether we think we are or not, we are all biased one way or the other. The problem is if we let these biases fester unchecked, they can distort our perception of reality.
We all like to believe that we think rationally, that we search for the truth above all, but our minds are notorious at deceiving us. They twist and contort information to make it suit the biases we possess.
All of us will have fallen victim to at least one of the biases listed below. We are only human after all. The best we can do is recognise these biases and try to counterbalance their effects.
We have biases for a simple reason. Accepting that we might be wrong gives us pain rather than pleasure. The desire to avoid pain is why we believe in these biases rather than the truth because they are kinder to our egos.
We see these biases at play all the time. They are easier to spot in others than ourselves. Witness the President say one thing one day and then deny he ever said it the next. Biases are everywhere.
Unless we check the many biases that we come into contact with, we will never be able to realise our potential. We will forever avoid the truth to please our biggest enemy of all, our ego.
Below are six biases that if left unchecked, stop you from making rational decisions and affect your quality of life. The sooner you recognise them, the sooner you can work on improving your life step-by-step.
“These guys have no idea what they’re talking about. I know much more about this than they do!”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a bias where people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a particular field. It may be biology, it might be a legal text, or it could even be something as trivial as general knowledge, but this bias is common.
The bias often arises when someone attains a small amount of knowledge in an area they were once unfamiliar with. Although they have only learnt a small amount about the subject, because they were previously ignorant, they now believe themselves to be experts on the subject.
A lack of self-awareness causes the person with the bias to inaccurately assess their skills. A classic example of this is the loudmouth who thinks they know more than everyone else, but in reality, knows very little.
This can be a tricky bias to overcome because no one wants to feel like we are stupid. It can be disheartening to think you know a lot about something only to be put in your place when someone with real knowledge of the subject speaks up.
A useful maxim to apply when with this bias is the famous quote by the Greek philosopher Socrates, “I know that I know nothing.” A friend of Socrates asked the oracle of Delphi whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, to which the oracle answered no.
Puzzled by this answer, Socrates toured Athens to talk to a variety of smart people in an attempt to find someone wiser than him. What he realised was that although these people thought they were wise, when questioned, they didn’t possess the knowledge to back it up.
Socrates concluded that he was wiser than them, not because he possessed more knowledge, but because he knew the limits of his knowledge. In short, he knew that he knew nothing, whereas the others didn’t.
A little humility in regards to our ability and knowledge is necessary if we are to progress. No one knows everything. Acknowledging that is the first step to becoming wise.
“Yep. This just confirms what I already knew.”
Confirmation bias is when you favour information that confirms your previously existing views or biases. Instead of taking onboard information that disagrees with your viewpoint, you dismiss it.
The reason we do this is simple, it’s uncomfortable to have our most deeply held beliefs challenged. For those of us whose identity is built around such beliefs, to have them challenged is an affront to the person as well as the idea.
An interesting way of looking at this is through the prism of gun control. One person may read a news story of a mass shooting, which confirms their belief on the need for more gun control. While an advocate of gun ownership might read the same story and come away with a stronger belief that more people should own guns to counteract the threat.
The story is impartial, our response to it is not. Both of these people have read the same story, yet they have used it to confirm their beliefs which are opposed.
All of us suffer from confirmation bias in some way or another. It’s hard not to. Many of us have beliefs that we hold dear. Instead of searching for information that confirms these beliefs, we should search for objective truths instead.
By doing so, we can approach our beliefs with more curiosity. This way we can be open to opposing views, understand them and go from there. An open mind is crucial. Very few things are black and white, the world operates in many shades of grey. Realising this can help us move past confirmation bias and see both sides of the argument in equal light.
“I believe it, so it must be true.”
The idea that because we believe in something so strongly that it must be true is a hard bias to shake. It can be found in many walks of life, but perhaps no more so than when it comes to our belief in our leaders.
It’s easy to see how people can become enraptured by leaders, despite the insidiousness of their ideals, or the lack of truth in their words. The rise of Hitler is an example of this.
Hitler was a brilliant orator. His speeches were anything but dull. Watch a video of some of his speeches on YouTube and the first thing you will be struck by is his passion as he speaks.
For people wavering and unsure in their beliefs, that fact someone could speak so vigorously about something must mean they are utterly convinced by what they are saying. They must have examined their ideas carefully to be able to express them with such conviction.
Well, this was half right. Hitler was convinced of his beliefs, but they were insidious ones that were based on fallacies and bigotry. This is how demagogues rise to power. They deceive us through the convictions of their beliefs and the dramatic manner in which they convey them.
To avoid falling prey to this bias, we need to research and question what we hear. Anyone can believe strongly in something, but if those beliefs are based on falsehoods, that conviction is built on a house of cards.
“They’re dressed impeccably! They must know what they’re doing.”
One of the most widespread biases humans exhibit is appearance bias. This is when people are judged based on how they appear. It’s an easy bias to fall prey to because we tend to place a high value on beauty.
It’s one reason we find good-looking politicians more trustworthy. But, this bias presents a problem. We see people as they appear to us, not as they are. They may seem nice because of their outward appearance, but this could be a mask used to deceive us.
Think of a salesman. Who are you more likely to trust, the one wearing an expensive suit, or the one wearing a jumper and jeans? The appearance of the first salesman in a suit conveys the idea that they must be successful to afford such an expensive piece of clothing.
Yet, this suit could be rented, or borrowed from a friend. We have no idea about the salesman’s background. Their appearance is elaborately constructed but it’s only a small facet of who they are.
Appearances can be deceiving. We are taught never to judge a book by its cover and the same should apply to our interactions with people. Don’t take someone at face value, judge them on their actions. This way you will get a clearer picture of their character than just by looking at their outward appearance.
“I’m on a roll! I better make the most of this while I can!”
The Gambler’s fallacy is an easy bias to fall into if you’re unfamiliar with statistics. The bias arises due to how we perceive past events. Because something has happened in the past, we may feel like it’s more or less likely to happen again.
This is due to the irrational nature of how we think about gambling. We have a misguided belief that luck comes in streaks. However, if you win once on a roulette wheel, this doesn’t mean you are more or less likely to win or lose again. The odds remain the same, we just perceive them to be different because of what happened earlier.
A famous example of this is what happened at the Monte Carlo casino on 18 August 1913. During the evening, something strange happened at the roulette table. The ball fell on black 26 times in a row. The odds of this happening were estimated to be 1 in 66.6 million!
As the streak lengthened, gamblers started to bet more and more money on red, in the misguided belief that the streak had to end. They believed that because the ball had landed on black for such a long streak, it had to end soon.
Gamblers lost millions in their mistaken belief that because there had been a long streak for black, this had to be followed by a similar streak for red. They had lost sight of the fact that the probability of the ball landing on either black or red remained the same regardless of what happened before.
This is something we need to watch out for in real life. If we become too invested in what has happened before we give ourselves false hope. We should be aware of what has gone before, but not be consumed by it.
The world is inherently chaotic. History does not repeat itself, it rhymes. The best strategy is to be aware of what can happen and prepare yourself accordingly. Hedging your bets is better than going all in headfirst.
“Everyone else is doing it, maybe I should too!”
The bandwagon effect is when a large number of people participate in the uptake of beliefs, fads and trends that have already been adopted by others.
This concept is very common in society. Think back through your life and you will be able to spot many. Pokemon, Tamagotchis and fidget spinners come to mind for me.
I enjoyed some, mostly Pokemon, but I only became interested once everyone else already was. Thus, I jumped on the bandwagon. Granted I was a child, so I was hardly thinking about why I joined the crowd, but as adults, we should.
Often, we join the bandwagon out of a desire to conform with the crowd or because we received information from an acquaintance. As more and more people join the bandwagon it creates a cascade which is hard for people to ignore. The pressure to join the bandwagon eventually becomes too much and we put aside personal opinion and follow the behaviour of others.
The idea is that because other people are doing it, it must be good. However, this is a fallacy, as a quick thought experiment shows. If everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you join in? Your intuition is telling you it’s a bad idea, but if everyone else is doing it, is it so bad?
We mustn’t suspend our critical thought process just because a majority of people are doing something. We should ask ourselves why they are doing this and decide if it’s something we want to partake in.
This quote from Mark Twain sums up the attitude we should take when we are faced with the bandwagon effect:
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Take your time and reflect on whether it’s worth jumping on the bandwagon. Remember, just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right.
These biases are ones we’re all prone to. Whether we’re too firm in our convictions or too quick to judge others on their appearance, we are susceptible to thinking in irrational ways.
If left unchecked, these biases can distort our view of reality and affect our quality of life. Once we recognise the biases we hold, we can work on reducing their hold over us and begin to negate their effects.
Hopefully, reading this article will make you aware of biases you may hold and allow you to work on diminishing their influence on your life.