Are We So Biased?

Are we human beings a bag of biases, being tossed about on the stormy ocean of life without any say in the matter? Fortunately we have education, scientific flair, self-awareness and ‘free’ will to prevent us from becoming total slaves to our own mental occult processes

 We have always wondered why our moods change so often, or why we engage into contradictory behaviours, actions and reactions, sometime to our own detriment and surprise. All this has encouraged both philosophers and religious people to delve into many theories and explanations.

Fortunately the advent of new disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry and neurosciences has made new inroads to explain such weaknesses. It is being realized that we have somehow learned mental tricks to protect ourselves against the onslaught of external influences, to prevent destabilizing factors from endangering our fragile ego and volatile psyche, hence ensuring our survival and that of our progeny. We get the impression that biological evolution has not only orchestrated our anatomy but has, side by side, also fashioned our individual mindset.

That’s how psychologists have isolated many mental complexes to explain our erratic inner life.

‘Overconfidence’: we are so often confronted with some people who are dead sure of themselves and their views to the point of brushing aside others’ concepts with contempt. Experts are often guilty of those excesses, only to be proven wrong later. Liverpool football club knows something about it, after losing to weaker teams on three occasions at home. Football experts were definitely sure that it would lose yet again at home against the better Chelsea opponent, but they were proved wrong; this would have called into play the “Clustering Illusion” – our tendency to see a pattern in many random events, like the gambler betting again on red at the roulette after a series of consecutive red results.

Because we have a ‘Choice – Supportive Bias’, then, while doing our purchase, say a new mobile, we are dead sure that we have made the right choice even when it has multiple flaws. And if before such purchase we had gone around frenetically seeking extra information in the hope of making a good buy, we might be guilty of ‘information bias’: it is the tendency to seek more information, even when this would be non-productive. And if we discover that the mobile is after all full of defects, we unconsciously downplay that negative aspect thereby upholding the “Ostrich effect”: by burying our head in the sand.

Yet when we went to buy that latest mobile, we had been hammered by the chief salesman, who had come down specially to launch it, extolling all its advantages and usefulness while conveniently omitting to talk about its limitations, capitalizing on our “Pro- Innovation Bias”. In that bargain, we might have imitated investors who believe that the latest market data are more reliable – while ignoring old information — to their own detriment, and become guilty of “Recency”. We have been told that the mobile is totally safe, but given that we suffer from “Zero Risk Bias” and love certainty, we have swallowed the information gullibly, brushing aside the possibility that some mobiles do catch fire.

The innovator was first to quote a high price of Rs 30,000 for his new mobile; after hectic bargaining we have finally settled for Rs 28,750 – little realizing that that businessman has got us snared into his “Anchoring Bias”– we had become over-reliant on the very first price thrown at us. Had he started at 25,000 we might have made the deal for 24,000. We have been naïve and ‘cheated’, for we have thought all people to be honest, that there are no wolves in the forest – but all along we are just suffering from “Selective Perception”, thinking that the world is modelled on our pet beliefs.

And climate change

Have we not met people who persistently stick to their old beliefs/conceptions, in spite of new scientific knowledge that they are wrong? That’s how they ended up with the Flat Earth Society – a case of ‘Conservatism Bias’. And these people will either avoid reading scientific papers contrary to their stand or indulge in those which support their archaic belief, the climate change sceptic conservatives for example, thereby perpetuating a “Confirmation Bias”. The problem is further compounded by the fact that each stakeholder will not be aware that he has a ‘Blind Spot Bias’ – the failure to realize that he himself is suffering from a cognitive bias – while easily recognizing it in others!

Add on top of that the ‘Bandwagon Bias’ – whereby each one of us tends to lean towards and side with the majority group of people in a board meeting who holds a certain view – consequently reinforcing that belief . Some of those stakeholders may overestimate and secretly cherish some information available to them and rely heavily on that hunch; for example, they know of one person who smokes a lot everyday, and yet live to be healthy at 90. So they go on smoking and conveniently forget the medical advice given to them, thereby becoming guilty of “Availability heuristic”. They doubt scientific proofs in one field and are happy to extrapolate the same reasoning to other disciplines – like climate change; and we end by having perpetual misunderstanding and total disagreement on the subject.

Or we conveniently concentrate on one example only, like someone suffering from “Survivorship Bias” – by misjudging a situation, and relying on surviving examples: we know of one entrepreneur who has done very well; surely all entrepreneurs are successful people. The news was that one medical specialist does one million monthly; the tacit assumption is that that applies to all specialists. Let’s enrol our child for medical studies!

Some people will cheat to reach their end, like the dishonest students, or the gamblers who spent a lot at the roulette; they say nothing when they lose, but judge their own decision as genial when the outcome is positive; they are least concerned by how that decision was reached, thereby downplaying the enormous risk they have taken. They would suffer from “Outcome Bias”, like successful drug peddlers.

Or when people praise their best friends or fall in love, they tend to forget the latter’s negative qualities and focus on their most attractive or recognizable features; that is “Salience”. Walking in a forest at night we’ll be expecting an imminent attack from an animal or foe, little realizing that the chance of tripping and falling in a crevasse is far higher.

And what to say of the “placebo effect” – just believing in a treatment is sufficient to make us better, even when that treatment is scientifically proven to be inert. Most of the homeopathic or alternative medicine systems rely on that psychological effect for their success. 30% of our diseases could be cured by the placebo effect. But the latest is that scientists are wondering why not investigate that effect further and give it a scientific footing, after all it is effective and without side-effects .

Who could be more guilty of the sin of ‘Stereotyping’ than Donald Trump, that tendency to judge people by the clan, group or religion they belong to, thinking that all South Americans are drug dealers and criminals, and that all those belonging to the Islamic faith are terrorists.

Businessmen are very interested by all these biases; they employ expert psychologists to warn them about the mental slip they could fall into in their financial and professional practice, while welcoming advice that would exploit the psychological weaknesses of their future customers and prompt them to spend their money compulsively with a smile.

The ultimate question is: are we human beings a bag of biases, being tossed about on the stormy ocean of life without any say in the matter? Fortunately we have education, scientific flair, self-awareness and ‘free’ will to prevent us from becoming total slaves to our own mental occult processes, to prevent us from being exploited by scheming people and reduce our potential for conflicts.

Dr Rajagopala Soondron

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