“We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.” – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)
All of us can be prone to stupidity and ignorance, though most of us prefer not to admit it. We like to think we have full control over our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviour, but in truth, we are shaped by our genes, our upbringing, our experiences, and our culture.
What baffles me the most in the current western society is the fact that so many people are actually convinced that their culture and their country are the best, and never once doubt the idea that their political views and ideologies are the ‘right’ ones. How they manage to feel a sense of pride in relation to their country, as if the country’s formation and developments had been their own personal achievement. I keep asking myself how so many people refuse to recognize that their place of birth, their culture, and their belief system are purely coincidental. How they can ignore the obvious fact that if they had grown up in another place, they would take that place’s views, beliefs, and traditions for granted, just as they are currently doing with their own.
None of this would concern me so much if the growing popularity of nationalism didn’t also lead to a growing acceptance of xenophobic and sexist tendencies. I feel tempted to blame white supremacists for refusing to study their country’s history, familiarizing themselves with other cultures, or reflecting on other ways of interpreting the meaning of existence. But can we really blame them if they have never been taught to be skeptical and to reflect on the potential flaws in their upbringing, their culture, and their personal outlook on the world and other people? After all, it’s incredibly difficult to detach yourself from the views of those around you, particularly if all or most of them share the same opinions. And it’s all too easy to criticize, or even demonize, a group of people we’re not, or don’t feel, a part of. We need to stop thinking in binaries, we need to stop thinking as ‘us’ versus ‘them’. That’s why we also need to try hard not to demonize racist, nationalist jerks, even if they are already doing a pretty good job of that all by themselves.
As progressive as we think we are, there will always be aspects of ourselves that reflect the shortcomings of our society. Most of us are still born into a culture that favours some people over others. To put it in the binary terms our culture has conditioned us to use, I’m talking about the favouring of white people over black people, of men over women, of straight people over gay people, of cisgender people over transsexual people. In western society, there is also the favouring of Christians over Muslims. And all of us have been influenced by this culture of binaries, whether we like it or not. Take one of these tests and you might be surprised by how much your subconscious thought patterns have been shaped by your very flawed society.
I’m certain that we all fail to see things clearly and without prejudice much more often than we’d like to admit to ourselves. We all find it hard to challenge our own beliefs – even those of us who pride ourselves on our open-mindedness, our critical thinking skills, and our willingness to question the status quo. I’m sure there are hundreds of things I am wrong about, and a lot of biases in my thinking that I’ll never become aware of, despite my best efforts to remain open and self-critical. I’m grateful for my studies, my travels, and my encounters with people who are much smarter/wiser/braver than me, for enabling me to recognize, and let go of, at least some of the biases I had internalized because of some idiotic cultural influences.
In my humble opinion, the key to change and awareness is the willingness to analyze and question all our inherent assumptions. The problem is, a lot of our beliefs about the world, ourselves, and other people are subconscious — we would never even think of questioning them because they seem so normal and natural to us. They are invisible ‘facts’ to us.
So let’s take a look at some of the unconscious biases that undermine our rational thinking on a regular basis:
- the ‘confirmation bias’: This bias describes our tendency to seek out information that supports our beliefs and ignore all the information that would threaten or undermine them.“Even those who avow complete and total open-mindedness are not immune. This bias manifests in many ways. When sifting through evidence, individuals tend to value anything that agrees with them — no matter how inconsequential — and instantly discount that which doesn’t. They also interpret ambiguous information as supporting their beliefs.”
- the ‘anchoring bias’: “Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs,” says Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We tend to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive on a given subject, and interpret all subsequent information around this ‘anchor’.
- ‘cognitive ease’:“Cognitive ease makes us feel more favorable toward things that are familiar and easy to understand. Our brain is wired to accept what is familiar. That can make us resistant to new assessments, even when presented with reliable facts. The illusory truth effect is a consequence of this cognitive bias. It is the tendency to believe information because it is repeated often. Our minds need to make quick judgments, so we take shortcuts. Relying on how often you’ve heard something to judge the truth of something is just one strategy.”
- the ‘availability heuristic’: Related to the above, our decision-making is based largely on the information that is most readily available to us, meaning that we tend not to seek out enough facts and opinions to make informed choices, especially when the decision involves other people.
- the ‘herding mentality’ and the ‘bandwagon effect’: Your peers’ behaviour shapes your own, and you are more likely to adopt a specific attitude or belief if a lot of people around you also hold that belief.
- the ‘status quo bias’: We tend to prefer things to stay the same, partly because we want to maintain a sense of control and avoid regrets, since it has been observed that “people feel greater regret for bad outcomes that result from new actions taken than for bad consequences that are the consequence of inaction (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982)”.
- the ‘choice-supportive bias’: Once you have made a decision about something, you tend to feel good about it and believe it was the right choice, even if from a rational perspective, this might not have been the case.
- the ‘affect heuristic’: “The affect heuristic represents a reliance on good or bad feelings experienced in relation to a stimulus. Affect-based evaluations are quick, automatic, and rooted in experiential thought that is activated prior to reflective judgments.” Hence, our behaviour and judgments are shaped by our current feelings. (More on this here)
- the ‘intergroup bias’: We tend to see people in our ‘group’ in a different light than we do people in another ‘group’, often without even being aware of it.
- the ‘salience bias’: “Our tendency to focus on the most easily-recognizable features of a person or concept. For example, research suggests that when there’s only one member of a racial minority on a business team, other members use that individual’s performance to predict how any member of that racial group would perform.”
- stereotyping: “Expecting a group or person to have certain qualities without having real information about the individual. There may be some value to stereotyping because it allows us to quickly identify strangers as friends or enemies. But people tend to overuse it. For example, one study found that people were more likely to hire a hypothetical male candidate over a female candidate to perform a mathematical task, even when they learned that the candidates would perform equally well.”
- the ‘halo effect’: “If people are failing, they look inept. If people are succeeding, they look strong and good and competent. That’s the ‘halo effect.’ Your first impression of a thing sets up your subsequent beliefs,” says Daniel Kahneman.
- ‘cognitive dissonance’: “There is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.” We might logically assume that, as a consequence, the individual would be willing to adapt his/her behaviour in order to create a consistency. However, as we all know, this rarely happens. More frequently, we will either look for new information that will counterbalance our dissonant beliefs, or convince ourselves that our dissonant beliefs are really not that important. Most of us prefer not to change our behaviour, even when there is a plethora of evidence that we would benefit from it.
The plenitude of cognitive biases and flawed thought processes undermine my hope that we can ever be consistently clear, rational thinkers. But remaining aware of biases such as the above may lead to an at least slightly less distorted view of the world, help us make more informed decisions and assess our and others’ situations with more accuracy.
So, how, in practice, can we do this? Well, we can make a habit of reflecting on our own thought processes, motives, and choices, we can stop ourselves from relying on our first, automatic impressions and impulses, we can try to get more information on various topics, resort to various channels, read or listen to articles and podcasts that offer new perspectives on something we thought was dull or assumed we knew everything about. We can choose to attend events and join organizations we normally would not be eager to learn anything about. We can actively seek out stuff written or produced or organized by people from another ‘group’ who do not share all our interests or views, read biographies about people we would not normally read, watch films set in places we do not care to visit, watch documentaries on subjects we are afraid to know more about, and generally make more of an effort to read or watch or listen to perspectives that do not necessarily match our own, all the while reminding ourselves to keep an open mind.
“You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behaviour than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.” – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Here’s a list of things we might want to take a closer look at in order to identify some of the flaws in our own views, thought patterns, and everyday habits:
- Your general thought patterns and sense of identity, i.e. the things you obsess about; the things you like and dislike about yourself; the things that make you feel uncomfortable; the things you feel most strongly about; the things you’re most proud of; the things you’re ashamed of; the things that most irritate you in other people; what your parents taught you to strive for; what your parents did well with raising you, and what they neglected to do; the things you remember most fondly from your childhood; the things you remember the least fondly; the things you often fight about with your family/partner/best friend; how you behave in a group as opposed to how you behave when you are by yourself; the things you spend too much time on; the things you spend too little time on; what your values are and whether they are reflected in your everyday life; what you would like to be remembered for.
- how you feel about your home country, its history and culture; what you think makes your nation different from others, and what it can learn from other nations and cultures; your preferences when it comes to the places you have visited, would like to visit, or would like to learn more about; the basis of your spiritual beliefs, the rules of your religion, its value as well as its flaws; your culture’s traditions, including the celebration of (national) holidays, and how you feel about them based on your personal experiences and memories vs. how you feel about them when you reflect on the meaning behind them.
- how you feel about race, how you approach people with a different skin colour, which articles/books/films you have read/watched that focus on black lives rather than whites, what you know about American and South African history, what you know about African countries and cultures, what you know about native Americans and native Australians, how black and aboriginal people have been depicted in the media.
- how you feel about gender and sexuality, i.e. what your culture has conditioned you to believe about women and men, what you associate with the notions “feminine” and “masculine”, how you tend to talk to and about the opposite sex; how you feel about the traditional gender roles; what you think about the norm of heterosexuality; how you feel about transsexuality; how you feel about sex, what turns you on and what turns you off; what you think about porn; what you think about prostitution; what you think about rape and the way it is handled by the legal system; how you feel about abortion; how you feel about having kids.
- how you feel about your body; how you define beauty; which types of bodies are favoured in your culture; the types of magazines you read or used to read, and how they define beauty; your thoughts about youth and aging and death; how you feel about your weight, and how you judge others based on their weight; the meaning you attribute to your health and/or fitness; your first assumptions about people you have not met before; the value you ascribe to a certain physical appearance, and the time you spend on make-up / buying and selecting clothes; what you know about where and how your clothes were produced; the money you spend on clothes.
- how you feel about food: what you consider comfort food; your parents’ diet and the messages your parents told you about food; which foods are presented to you as natural and essential, and why; where your food comes from and how it was produced; what you think of the multitude of choice in supermarkets; what foods you think you could not live without; how many products you are consuming now vs. how many products you would survive on if a war were to break out; how you think about animals in the food industry as opposed to the animals you consider pets; how you feel about factory farming and what you are willing to do about it; how you feel about your diet as a potential spiritual/political/ethical issue; which foods you would (not) give to your children; how much money you are willing to spend on food.
- relationships: what you look for in a partner; what behavioural traits attract you based on the behaviour and relationships you witnessed in the people around you when growing up; what your parents taught you about love and sex; what your culture has led you to believe about love and relationships; the impressions you have of singlehood; what type of life you have been told to strive for; how you view marriage; the meaning of stability; the meaning of freedom; the meaning of trust and loyalty; which situations help you feel most connected to, and at ease with, yourself; which situations make you feel lonely; how you feel about the roles that have been assigned to us according to our gender; how your relationships have changed because of the internet and social media; how much time you spend communicating with others online versus face-to-face; what you believe constitutes a good relationship.
- how you feel about money; what you like to spend your money on; whether you like to donate to a good cause, and which ones and why (not); which of your possessions you have purchased only for yourself and which ones you have accumulated mainly to please or impress others; what possessions make you feel good and which affect you negatively or restrict you in the kind of life you want to lead; what possessions you cling to and what they mean to you and your story.
- how you feel about your education, your skills and talents and professional shortcomings; how you feel about your work and what meaning you attribute to a career as a whole; what you think of status, recognition, and achievements; which types of jobs you value over others; how you feel and behave towards people with high-status jobs vs. people with low-status jobs; which kinds of things you most wish to receive praise for; in which situations you feel superior or inferior to others; how you feel about celebrities; what type of skills you would like to learn in your work; what kind of a work environment you feel is the most and least pleasant; what you consider one of your most important personal duties and why you are proud of fulfilling it; what kinds of duties you enjoy the least; which personality traits you most and least appreciate in others; which activities you find the most rewarding; in which situations you feel the most useful and why.
There might be many other topics and issues for you to address, and only you will be able to choose the kinds of reflections and changes in thought patterns that will help you improve your life and become a wiser person. If I can make a suggestion, begin by questioning everything that seems completely inevitable and/or ordinary to you, because those are the kinds of things you are the least likely to address; but if you do, the results might astonish you!
Best of luck!