Let me ask you a question, ‘Do you live in reality?’ I expect you will say yes, but I would beg to differ. Why is that? Well, our brains do not allow us to live in reality.
Over the last few million years our brains have evolved to deal with four huge problems. They are information overload, not enough meaning, the need to act fast and what we should be remembering. Our brains have devised four cognitive biases to deal with these problems. The trouble is these four solutions have created four more problems, and this is where reality is being blocked. Let’s look at the four cognitive biases and their subsequent problems.
Firstly, there is too much information in the universe for us to be able to take it all on-board. So we filter a great deal of it out. We tend to be drawn to things that help confirm our existing beliefs and things that are repeated often. We focus on things that are bizarre or unique, and filter out ordinary and expected information. It is this cognitive bias that makes us see flaws in others easier than seeing our own faults. All of this is done to save the brain time and energy. It also allows it not to become overwhelmed with information.
The downside of this bias is we don’t see everything, and a lot of the information we filter out is actually useful and important. This of course means we are not seeing the big picture, and we are also reinforcing our selective perceptions.
The second problem is that the world is confusing and ambiguous, so we only end up seeing a small part of it. However, for survivals sake we need to try and make some sense of it, so we fill in the gaps with information we believe we already know. We look for patterns and stories that will help complete the information. We use stereotypes, generalities and information we have received earlier. Our present assumptions and mind-set are projected onto the past and future. We also assume we know what others are thinking. This bias allows the brain to fill in any gaps in information being received.
The problem with filling in the gaps means we are prone to conjuring up illusions. We imagine details, construct meaning and tell stories that are not actually true. This gives us a false view of reality.
Thirdly, we need to act fast, as information is coming at us at the speed of light. If we did not have the ability to process information quickly the human race would have perished a long while ago. Even though we are constrained by time and information, we need to be confident that we have the ability to make an impact, and to feel like what we do is important. We tend to favour options that seem simple or have complete information, and steer clear of complex, ambiguous options. We prefer easier things, even if they are not the most important or even the best use of our time and energy. This bias allows the brain to save energy and process details quickly.
The problem with this bias is that these quick reactions and decisions can be seriously flawed, as they can be self-serving, unfair and counterproductive.
The fourth bias helps us decide what we should remember and what we should let go. There is so much information in the universe, so we can only keep the bits we feel are going to be most useful in the future. We tend to remember generalisations and not specifics because they take up less space. When there are lots of irreducible details, we save a few items that standout and disregard the rest. Lists and events are reduced to their key elements, so we can pick out a few items that will represent the whole. We will only encode information we feel is important at the time. This bias stops the brain getting overloaded and overwhelmed.
The problem is our memory reinforces errors, and makes our thought processes more damaging. We are not remembering the whole picture, only certain parts of it.
Until our brains are able to take in all the information in the universe, we are stuck with these four cognitive biases. However, if we can admit to ourselves that we are biased, we fill in the gaps when things are ambiguous and our memories are not reliable, we are on the right track to improving our thinking.
Meditation and daily review sessions will help you pinpoint your biases and give you a chance to understand your thought processes better. Staying mindful throughout the day will also help. It will give you the chance to think critically and not just blindly judge things. All of this will not eliminate the biases, but it will lead you to a better understanding of yourself.
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