How our biases get in the way of making good decisions

This week’s newsletter briefly explores our biases and tendencies and how they can get in the way of good decision making and collaborating with people.  In an earlier newsletter I looked at the limited spectrum of information that we are able to comprehend.  This is what I wrote a few months back:

It seems that what we think we are observing around us is such a small percentage of reality. Not only do we miss the “big picture” as well as the fine details, we actually fail to observe and recall hardly anything at all.  In an amazing experiment students were asked to observe four differently coloured shapes for a fraction of a second.  The shapes were flashed momentarily again and one of the shapes was rotated either to the left or to the right.  The subjects were then asked to state whether there had been a rotation to the left or right.  Most people failed at this task, and in fact average people were only able to tell if there had been a movement to the left or to the right if there were less than three objects to observe… Imagine that! We think we can know all that is going on around us but in fact at a conscious level we can hardly observe or recall anything.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.  Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening.”

There is simply too much information out there for us to process.

When we observe with limited perception we tend to believe in what we see, smell, touch and hear and we form rigid views based on that perception.  For a simple example of how optical illusions play tricks on us check this out:

Take a look at the clip before reading the next bit.

If you followed the task how many of you saw the gorilla?  If not take another look.  This is a great example of the importance of attention.  When our attention is diverted by a task we can miss the obvious.  As Daniel Kahneman says “we can be blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness”.

Just think how often your attention is taken by a task at work or stolen by advertising images, and then imagine how the world is misrepresented by your senses and your captured attention.  That’s one of the reasons why its useful to train your attention to make it less easily manipulated.  We’re surrounded by optical and other sensorial illusions and these become cognitive illusions as we process the information.  Our thoughts and feelings are therefore based on an illusion.

That does not mean that all is illusion and to lack confidence in your thoughts and actions.  However it is useful to cultivate more humility and understanding that your view of the world is just one impression and that others have an important perspective that can provide you with amazing insights.

This brings me onto the second point about how we develop cognitive illusions based on the illusions of our senses.  Heuristic biases are the environmental factors that have influenced the way we interpret the information flowing from the sense organs to the mind.  Up until the 1970s scientists broadly accepted two ideas about human nature:  First, people are generally rational  and second emotions such as fear and love explain departures from rationality.  In the 1970s Daniel Kahneman documented more than twenty types of systematic errors in the thinking of normal people which were not based on deviations from the norm caused by strong emotions.

I’ll provide you with one example of an heuristic bias – the amount of media coverage on a particular topic impacts the importance that people place on that topic, its potential economic impact and the likelihood that it will impact them personally. That’s one of the reasons why Silvio Berlosconi benefits from control of the Italian press.  There are many other biases, such as how our parents encouraged us to perceive the world. So what we see, or think we see, is influenced by the way we have see that thing before.  We experience the world in an increasingly rigid way and thats why its so good to travel and experience different cultures or learn a new language so that you begin to think and express based on a different set of cultural norms.

These heuristic biases, combined with illusions of the senses (influenced by our ability to pay attention), creates an imperfect impression of the world and leads us to imperfect thinking and decision making.

None of this is a problem!  By definition it’s impossible for us to observe everything in a perfect way.  All it means is that all of us, especially the experts and leaders in our society, need to develop the strength of humility.  The more we learn, the more we realise there is more to learn and that others have an interesting perspective. Deepening our knowledge about misperception and heuristic biases enables us to explore each others thought processes and idiosyncrasies with humour and playfulness . It enables collaboration and fosters dialogue.  It reminds us that we all have a story to tell, each as precious and as valid as the next

PS. when I  studied the Bhagavad-Gita in India there was a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna about the impossibility of humans being able to take in the reality of their surroundings.  When Lord Krishna enables this briefly Arjuna is flooded with knowledge, colour and beauty.

“O Arjuna, I have innumerable forms of diverse colors and shapes. There are many miraculous things that you have not seen before. The whole universe, both animate and inanimate, exists in one part of My divine body. You are not able to see the whole of My form with your sense perception. Therefore I will give you a divya chakshu (divine eye) through which you can see the form of the Lord as a whole.”

Reading ideas :
The invisible Gorrilla Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Posted on August 21, 2012, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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