Can You Recognise These Emotional Biases?

There are two related desires that affect our thought process and decisions: we seek out pleasure and try to avoid pain. There are good reasons to have these built-in beliefs, they protect us from harm. Or so they used to. Many years ago, seeking out pain would have been a death wish. You would not survive long in the African savanna if you had an underlying desire to feel pain. But we now live in a time where your emotions can easily be hijacked and pleasure is more abundant and accessible than ever before, creating a trap where we recoil from pursuing righteous goals that are unpleasant or painful to us. We are all subject to mental biases but how we can identify such irrationality?

The Appearance Bias

See people for who they are. Since we were children we have been conditioned to fit into society. All of us have conformed to be able to create relationships with others. We cannot project our own wills upon other people, especially when we are young so we learn to abide by social norms. Human interaction is a skill and people have trained themselves to become better at presenting a front that you will like and judge positively. Far more people present themselves as hardworking and conscientious than there are actual people who are conscientious and hardworking.

Judging people on their deeper character, through their actions rather than what they say will give you some understanding about who you are truly dealing with. We are prone to fall for the halo effect – we assume people are either all good or all bad. If someone demonstrates a positive characteristic like high intelligence then we automatically associate other positive traits to this individual and the same goes for negative traits.  Studies have shown that we think better of good-looking people despite not knowing anything about their character. Why do you think Hollister had a strict policy on the appearance of its staff? Good looking people makes you think nice clothes and we like buying nice clothes.

The Confirmation Bias

We make plans in order to attain an objective. Considering both the negative and positive aspects of a plan can result in you not taking action or in a work scenario, your boss not approving your ideas. In order to convince ourselves or get approval, we usually only present one side of the story, filled with statistics and ‘evidence’ that supports our view or theirs. We believe first then we find evidence to support us. Finding evidence that confirms what we want to believe is the confirmation bias. Rather we should look at both sides of the argument and let the evidence and strength of the argument guide us towards the truth. No plan is perfect and often you will be faced with 60-40 or 50-50 splits which do not have a clear winner. Not holding on too strongly to our most cherished beliefs will allow us the flexibility we need to adapt to new information.

The Conviction Bias

When we hear heated words and see wild gestures alongside colourful metaphors and entertaining anecdotes, we believe that those action can only be justified by someone who is certain. Those, on the other hand, who display less overt confidence and showmanship, whose tone is more hesitant, reveal weakness and self-doubt. This bias makes us susceptible to salesmen and people who appeal to popular desires and prejudices rather than rational thought. They usually have a 15 minutes long Facebook or Youtube advert describing how they can make you rich in a day. They know that people want the easy option, so they disguise their lies with dramatic effects such as attractive females, stacks of cash and luxury cars. Don’t be fooled by this facade.

The Group Bias

We like to imagine that we think in a vacuum, that through our own unique genius we come up with ideas and when others agree with us, it’s simply because of our miraculous vision. In reality, due to our social nature, we find tremendous relief in finding ourselves on the side of the majority. We deliberately choose to hang out with people that share our opinions and we are quick to squash any disagreement between us and the group. Being on the side of the minority is terrifying and can be social suicide. Look at politics today, rather than trying to address the plethora of issues within education, healthcare and the economy, we are more concerned about whether people are right or left. Self-identifying with one-side means we adopt the same view on all issues as if only one side has the answers to the world’s problems.

Rather than giving up your voice to others, concentrate energy on forming your own opinions and an understanding about why you have the beliefs you do. Politicians will not solve your deepest issues, that’s up to you. Finally, if you ever fear isolation for standing up for what you believe in, imagine if Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Galileo Galilei let their ideas wither away because they wanted to conform.

The Blame Bias

Just because we make a mistake once, does not mean we are any further away from repeating the same mistake. We all have good intentions when it comes to our mistakes. We want to learn our lesson and not repeat the experience. It is often, however, too painful to look at our mistakes with the introspection that we truly need to explain what we just did. An easier option is to assign blame to factors that do not owe any explanation. We can say that we were unlucky or the timing was not right or we can take it one step further and start incriminating others, to void us of our guilt.

Yes, there are forces outside of your control that affect every decision you make but your job should be to try to find the part of the mistake that was down to you, not for the sake of self-pity or diminishing your confidence, but instead so you can start making fewer mistakes and become a better decision-maker. Take responsibility for tragedies and as you become better at dealing with adversity, others will be drawn to your stability and grit. Your life after all is just a series of decisions. Better decisions lead to a better life.

The Superiority Bias

We take a harsher view on others because we believe that their faults are unique to them. We cannot see how we can have major issues because we are blind to them. Our blindness is strengthened by our inherent belief that we are better than everybody else. When asked in surveys and tests, we often rate ourselves above average, regardless of our true abilities. This delusion serves its purpose for our survival in ancient times, if we were to think everybody is better than us, why struggle so hard to attain a meagre standard of living. The species would die out.

By thinking that we are different, more rational and more ethical we justify what we do no matter the results and scrutinise others who do not seem to live up to our standards. How many people do you think will admit that they got a job because of a family friend or close connection rather than hard work and natural talent. We know the stories we want to hear, about how great we are, but we know the reality and perhaps all of us are simply deceiving ourselves. You are not simply born ethical or rational. They must be achieved through awareness and effort. Everything worthwhile takes time and in a world where quick wins are the ideal victory – posting on social media and getting instant gratification – our ability to persist without rewards for long periods of time is diminishing. Invest for the long-term, it’s the only investment worth making.


Primary Source: The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
Featured image credit: Micaël Reynaud

4 Comments

  1. Madeline Johnson

    I blog about emotional intelligence and seeing past our self-delusion. I thank you for writing this post about our biases. There are so many of them as you know, but you have selected some of the most important to over come. Great work here. Thanks Alec.

    Liked by 1 person

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