Confirmation bias. Self-serving bias. Stereotyping. Optimism bias. Motivated reasoning. Fundamental attribution error … a list of the unconscious biases that can sabotage relationships could fill multiple pages. But while we’re fascinated by biases at Think Better. Do Better., we’re more fascinated by what we can do to reduce their impact. And fortunately, there are several safeguards that help diminish the effect of multiple biases on our perceptions of, and behaviour within, our relationships. So let’s start with a just a few examples of how your fast (unconscious) brain might not always serve you well when it comes to maintaining positive, authentic relationships.
You tell your boss you’d really like to work on a forthcoming project. She tells you that she’s already decided that your colleague Sam will be appointed to the project.
What you think in the moment: ‘I can’t believe she’s gone ahead and done that with no consultation. She never takes what I want into account. Sam always gets the plum jobs.’
What your fast brain does: Brings to mind every single instance in which your boss hasn’t done precisely what you’d like her to do. Totally ignores the fact that last week she agreed to pay for you to undertake an expensive development program. Overlooks that Sam has been stuck on a tedious project for the past year. Generally works you into a lather over the terrible injustice that’s befallen you.
Bias at play: Confirmation bias – our brain’s tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and expectations, and ignore data that contradicts them.
Negativity bias – our brain’s tendency to place greater weight on negative as opposed to positive information.
What you feel: angry, frustrated, disappointed, jealous
What you do: Rant to your best mate. Respond sarcastically to Sam when he asks if you’re okay with him working on the project. Drink three glasses of red in quick succession.
The result: Your boss observes your sulk and is unimpressed. Sam is slightly hurt and his trust in you is diminished. You wake up with a headache.
You’re scrolling through Facebook and see a photo of two close friends having what looks like a very good night out. You’re surprised to see them together as you usually catch up as a trio. You begin to feel a little hurt. Before long, you’re fuming.
What you think in the moment: ‘What the @#$% is going on??! I introduced them to each other! They wouldn’t ever catch up if it wasn’t for me. Pair of #$%@s!’
What your fast brain does: Leaps to only one of many possible explanations for the Facebook photo. Replays every annoying little thing that both friends have ever done, and amplifies each one fivefold. Casts around for other signs that you’ve been sidelined, looking for clues that your conclusion is right (and steadfastly not looking for clues that your conclusion is wrong).
Bias at play: Jumping to conclusions (yes, that’s a psychological term, commonly abbreviated as JTC).
What you feel: hurt, angry, resentful
What you do: Stew on it for a week. Lose a bit of sleep. Get more and more worked up about the whole thing.
The result: You don’t organise a get-together for ages. A few months later feel like a complete idiot when it transpires that in fact your mates happened to run in to each other on the night in question, and had a drink on the spur of the moment.
You’re introduced to a new colleague at work. He seems nice enough, but he’s years older than you are, doesn’t say much and you (think you) can tell straight away that you’ll have little in common.
What you think in the moment: ‘He’s dull … I wish they’d brought in someone a bit more dynamic. Can’t see what he’ll add. Probably just biding time until he retires.’
What your fast brain does: Makes an instantaneous judgement of your colleague’s personality, potential contribution and motivations based on his appearance.
Bias at play: Stereotyping – our brain’s tendency to attribute certain characteristics, qualities, strengths, weaknesses, roles etc. to individuals based on the group or category to which they belong (in this example the stereotyping is based on age, appearance and demeanour).
What you feel: disappointed, disinterested
What you do: Invite the new arrival to meetings only if you judge his presence essential. Tune out while he’s talking. Don’t ask about his previous experience, areas of interest or for his opinion.
The result: It’s not until 6 months into his role that you discover that your ‘dull’ colleague has some influential connections that would have been very valuable in resolving a major challenge you’ve been tussling with for months. By then your evident disinterest in him has left him feeling undervalued and you have to work really hard to get him on side. When you finally do, you discover he has a wicked sense of humour and a wealth of expertise to boot.
So, what can we do to ensure that our fast brain’s shenanigans don’t mess up our relationships with friends, colleagues, family members and others? These three safeguards are useful in counteracting the impact of bias in multiple contexts, but especially when it comes to relationships.
1. Adopt an Explorer Mindset
This concept is based on Julia Galef’s concept of ‘Scout Mindset’ … I prefer the term ‘Explorer’ because in an Australian context when we think of a ‘Scout’, this is the image that comes to mind as opposed to a scout in a military context, which is the meaning that Galef intended.
A Scout/Explorer Mindset is the opposite of the Soldier Mindset that is our biased brain’s default mode. What’s the difference between the two? Well, a soldier’s job is to hold on to existing territory (beliefs, perspectives, opinions) at almost any cost and, wherever possible, to overcome or defend against the opposition. Underpinning the soldier mindset is a sense of tribalism or defensiveness. An explorer, on the other hand, aims to understand the territory, to discover whether it’s inhabitable, perhaps, or the location of the nearest source of fresh water. This mindset is characterised by curiosity, a willingness to update one’s beliefs and opinions based on new information or insights, and the humility to acknowledge when one has been wrong.
So, when your soldier gets all worked up and tells you that your boss never takes your preferences into account and always gives Sam the plum jobs, you can check whether that sulk, rant and excessive consumption of red wine are justified by taking an explorer’s approach and asking:
1. What observable evidence am I basing my position upon? (She didn’t allocate that great project to me).
2. What observable evidence contradicts my position? (She just approved my PD request. Sam has been on that dud project for year. I didn’t actually ever tell her I was interested in the project …)
The result? You update your views based on the evidence, and realise that your boss’s actions were perfectly reasonable. While you may still feel disappointed, you’re neither angry nor jealous, so you congratulate Sam and your boss takes note of your team spirit.
2. Check your assumptions
Our fast brain is brilliant at leaping to conclusions. When you notice yourself making a negative assessment of someone’s behaviour, character or abilities, asking some explorer questions may be sufficient for you to update your beliefs. At other times, you’ll need to be more proactive, for example, by getting to know your new colleague a little before writing him off as a bore. Had you taken your colleague out for a coffee and asked him about his previous roles, you would probably have uncovered his strengths in week 1, rather than waiting for them to become evident in week 26.
As with Explorer Mindset, checking your assumptions involves asking questions, but will often extend beyond interrogating yourself to taking the time to find out about others before drawing a conclusion. So, rather than seething over a perfectly innocent Facebook post, you might casually ask your friend: ‘Hey, I saw you caught up with James the other night – what was the occasion?’.
3. Ask the opposite
‘What dud jobs has Sam had over the past 6 months?’
‘What’s the evidence that my friendship with each of these people is strong?’
‘What might make this person a great addition to our team?’
Asking these questions – and answering them honestly – would have resulted in a different outcome in each of the scenarios above. Asking the opposite turns off the autopilot of our fast brain so that we can make a more objective assessment of the situation. This approach is especially useful in scenarios in which you’re feeling negatively towards someone because of dichotomous, or all/nothing, thinking.
These three safeguards won’t solve all your relationship challenges, but they will help you identify what are real challenges, and what challenges may have been manufactured by your faulty fast brain.
Be an explorer.
Check your assumptions.
Ask the opposite.
And notice the difference.