Thoughts on Biases

“Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Biases are an unavoidable part of our thinking. They can lead to terrible prejudices, habits, and meaningless preferences, but they can also help save us a lot of time, reduce the cognitive demand on our brains, and help us move smoothly through the world. There are too many decision points in our lives and too much information for us to absorb at any one moment for us to not develop shortcuts and heuristics to help our brain think quicker. Quick rules for associative thinking are part of the process of helping us actually exist in the world, and they necessarily create biases.

 

A bad sushi roll might bias us against sushi for the rest of our life. A jump-scare movie experience as a child might bias us toward romcoms and away from horror movies. And being bullied by a beefy kid in elementary school might bias us against muscular dudes and sports. In each instance, a negative experience is associated in our brains with some category of thing (food, entertainment, people) and our memory is helping us move toward things we are more likely to like (or at least less likely to bring us harm). The consequences can be low stakes, like not going to horror movies, but can also be high stakes, like not hiring someone because their physical appearance reminds you of a kid who bullied you as a child.

 

What is important to note here is that biases are natural and to some extent unavoidable. They develop from our experiences and the associations we make as move through life and try to understand the world. They can be defining parts of our personality (I only drink black coffee), they can be incidental pieces of us that we barely notice (my doughnut choice order is buttermilk bar, maple covered anything, chocolate, plain glaze), and they could also be far more dangerous (I have an impulse to think terrible things about anyone with a bumper sticker for a certain political figure – and I have to consciously fight the impulse). Ultimately, we develop biases because it helps us make easier decisions that will match our preferences and minimize our chances of being upset. They are mental shortcuts, saving us from having to make tough decisions and helping us reach conclusions about entire groups of things more quickly.

 

The goal for our society shouldn’t be to completely eliminate all instances of bias in our lives. That would require too much thought and effort for each of us, and we don’t really have the mental capacity to make so many decisions. It is OK if we are biased toward Starbucks rather than having to make a decision about what coffee shop to go to each morning, or which new coffee shop to try in a town we have never visited.

 

What we should do, is work hard to recognize biases that can really impact our lives and have negative consequences. We have to acknowledge that we have negative impulses toward certain kids of people, and we have to think deeply about those biases and work to be aware of how we treat people. Don’t pretend that you move through the world free from problematic biases. Instead, work to see those biases, and work to push against your initial negative reaction and think about ways that you could have more positive interactions with others, and how you can find empathy and shared humanity with them. Allow biases to remain when helpful or insignificant (be biased toward vegetarian take-out for example), but think critically about biases that could have real impacts in your life and in the lives of others.

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