Basically, it’s not them, it’s their brains. And for pretty much the same reasons, parents’ brains can’t be trusted, either. Or teacher’s brains. Or clergy’s brains. It’s why seasoned police veterans take eye-witness testimony with a grain of salt – the limitations of our senses make us and our children very unreliable reporters. How unreliable? Here’s a website that lists 50 different inherent biases that come pre-packaged or get home-grown in most of our brains. They work to seriously compromise our multiple intelligences: 50 Brain Biases.
I’m going to discuss the four I find most intriguing and challenging for myself. Feel free to pick your own favorite distorting biases from those remaining on that list.
Sometimes when I’m running a little low in self-awareness, I can occasionally come across as a pretty big know-it-all. Some people have even called me … dogmatic. Or worse – an idealogue! Good heavens!! At such times it’s pretty certain I am running a pretty big Confirmation Bias. Also known as the Semmelweis Effect or Morton’s Demon, confirmation bias happens when I’m out in the world discovering all the evidence that what I believe is true is true, and completely overlook all the evidence that suggests what I believe might not be true.
How prevalent is confirmation bias in American culture? Pretty prevalent if you believe this research which says that 40-50% of parents of overweight or obese kids, don’t think their children are fat. Another example: if I believe it’s all right to spank children, and it’s something I regularly do, it’s pretty certain that evidence like this from Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint is never going to find its way into my cognitive machinery. Which is unfortunate for my children’s developing brains.
The world is very big, complex and it’s full of illusions. How big, how complex and how full? Too big for me or even the most accomplished among us to ever be a know-it-all with any real degree of certainty. Check out Beau Lotto at this TED talk demonstrating how rarely our senses can be fully trusted: The Celebration of Uncertainty.
First articulated by social psychologist Melvin Lerner, this brain bias often finds me convincing myself that the world is just and people in it pretty much get what they deserve. My just-world bias is a great way for me to avoid conflict and rationalize away the reluctance I have about getting actively involved in the world and other people’s lives in any kind of constructive, restorative, proactive way. I can simply leave things up to karma and the universe to restore justice to the world. That way I can remain safe and not have to have my heart broken open over and over again by the suffering and real injustices that occur even right here on my little offshore island sanctuary.
This kind of bias often leads to blaming the victims in this world of ours – for example, asserting that women who are raped are only getting what they deserve – not something I believe in the least, but certainly a bias that women are still dealing with in our culture. And this is only one disturbing example of a just-world bias in a world full of injustice.
The Pathetic Fallacy
I love the title of this bias. Essentially, whenever I speak directly to the sticks, stones, fences and the body fat in my neighborhood – which I do from time to time – I am demonstrating the Pathetic Fallacy. It’s me ascribing thoughts, feelings and sensations to inanimate objects, which, as far as we can measure, don’t actually have them. This is a tough one for me to let go of even today, because I do still secretly believe that just because we can’t scientifically measure them, doesn’t mean that sticks, stones, fences and body fat don’t have thoughts, feelings and sensations. Perhaps one day the Pathetic Fallacy itself, will turn out to be a pathethic fallacy. Knowing that such a concept is out there, and American culture does want me to pretend to be a subscriber to it, does sometimes help me not be so dogmatic.
Loss Aversion Bias
I hate losing. There was a time when I’d do pretty much anything to avoid losses in my life – people, places, things, face, self-respect, money, tools, pets, my mind.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to a deep realization that loss is inevitable and inextricable, a secret undercurrent of life. And that structuring things like relationships, investments, work in the world, and the activities of my days in ways to avoid loss is tantamount avoiding life itself. It’s much more skillful to develop tools and practices that help me learn to feel, embrace and constructively express the pain of loss than to avoid it. One such tool that I have found to be very helpful involves regular meditations on something called The Nine Contemplations of Atisha. They tend to put life and its challenges in perspective. I invite you to spend some time with them yourself. See what happens.
I tend to take a lot of credit for the things that turn out well in my life, and distort the causes for things that don’t turn out so well. This is known as the Self-Serving Bias.
A recent example: my next door neighbor didn’t like the six inches of our car bumper occasionally extending over onto his property when we’d park in our driveway. So he decided to build a fence. In a fit of pique, he dug deep holes into the hardpacked gravel, put in eight pressure-treated fence posts, but then abandoned the project once he calmed down. The posts just sat there until finally foreclosure loomed. A new owner bought the house – lovely woman. I negotiated with her to turn the fence into latticed garden walls. I built walls that turned out beautifully. Except for the posts, of course, which were crooked and were put in at different heights, and had big variations in their spacing! All parts of the project that I had nothing to do with. Ask me about those walls. I’ll tell you all about them. Of course, I could have straightened and leveled the posts before I started building those walls, but don’t ask me about that. I might come across as more than a little self-serving.
So, there are descriptions of four – plus a bonus (I like to under-promise and over-deliver – state and federal governments, take note!) – biases responsible for sub-optimal brain functioning. How do we teach our kids effective ways to understand and deal with this cornucopia of distortion? Simple … but not easy. Learn about them and give our brains practice in effectively dealing with them ourselves … to the extent it self-serves us!