Friday, July 04, 2014

How Come We Humans are Biased?

Bias has a negative connotation as if we should not have any. But what if there’s an upside? Has it helped to get us where we are? On the other hand, what do you do if a bias (that you are don’t know you have) is interfering with your relationships and your success at solving problems?

You and I are on this earth because our ancestors strategically adapted to changing circumstances in their lives and the surrounding environment in which they lived. They fought ferociously to survive. Along the way, they decided why certain events happened, whether true or not, based on the best available knowledge at the time.

It seems we humans have a natural tendency to create order out of chaos and in so doing attribute a cause to a happening. We are pattern-seekers and as many phenomena do have discernible, deterministic causes, the system we developed and encoded served us well most of the time. When there is not a clear cause we make up a reason anyway and hence little errors of judgment.

The birth of biases!! Our tightly interconnected brain, with no boss, many options and made up of thousands of specialized modules, spurs the biases along. Advances in neuroscience have helped us understand why - what fires together wires together because the architecture of our brains (a complex system like the weather or the Internet) enables the links. Emotions get mixed in. No five-star general is in control. In the absence of no team members or peers with whom to argue, our free-wheeling thoughts about an event (an interpretation) will be checked against what we know, fit in accordingly and put into our memories as connected. Under similar circumstances later, they will be retrieved automatically. Hence non-conscious biases!

Like our ancestors, we are still wrestling with what is real. We constantly update our perceived reality through a mixture of new evidence true or not, and a made-up former narrative that fits in with what we know and with which we feel comfortable. Like our ancestors, we are forced to adapt to current circumstances in order to survive and thrive. Climate change, the weather, new technologies, financial crises, gridlock, joblessness, pandemics and much more threaten our safety and security. The human spirit seldom gives up. We try to figure it out increasingly on a global, local and personal basis. Our brains (the conscious parts) decide. We believe.

Trial and error works more or less because we have to argue our beliefs (positive or negative biases) usually with others in a team or on a larger scale.  We challenge assumptions. We ask for and look for the evidence. We then may take a second look at our points-of-view. Eventually collective intelligence mitigates the errors. The mounting evidence on the reality of climate change is one example.

The culprit behind bias creation is primarily our left hemisphere, according to Daniel Kahneman, Iain McGilchrist, Michael S. Gazzaniga and many others who study and write about how we make decisions. It is the great interpreter. It does not like chaos. It tries to fit everything into a story – events with context. It dislikes and has little faith in randomness. The left hemisphere does not operate in real time but rather in post-hoc- time (explanations and observations) trying to make sense out of scattered “facts”.  A little bit of fudging here and there arises to create a story that makes sense. It is a slow thinking process, but one that is essential to our growing understanding of how the world works and how we can make it a better place for all.

Our left hemisphere, while having a module or more specializing in interpretation, is hindered. The quality of its thinking is only as good as the information it accesses. It engages with the information to sift and sort things out. This is where the right hemisphere comes in.

The right hemisphere lives a literal life in present time like a meditator or a good listener. The right hemisphere works fast because it does not interpret but it does pay attention to things and relationships. Always on. Always observing. It is the ultimate explorer. If we let it. When the left hemisphere strays too far from reality, the “explorer” might rein the “interpreter” in because of what it “knows”.

The two hemispheres are complementary, acting like a smart partnership, of different capabilities, when we humans choose to take advantage of their respective specialties. What helps the partnership along? Here are some practices:

An overriding stretch goal that inspires people to join and contribute

A cause bigger than ourselves around which many can rally despite opposing viewpoints

Tapping into the wisdom of the crowd by allowing all involved to think for themselves before sharing opinions

Equal turn-taking and listening in a team as Alex Pentland from MIT and author of Social Physics has discovered is fundamental to team innovation and productivity

Introducing more fun into the workplace which activates the right hemisphere’s explorer mode and the brain’s depth of knowledge

Creating a positive culture of acceptance and celebration of everyone’s strengths and contributions

Starting with “I don’t know”, the standard self-talk of top notch investigators tackling complex problems with no obvious solutions. 

The bottom line: There’s a reason for our biases. We are evolving.  We are learning. Neuroscientist David Linden describes the evolution of the brain as a progressive accumulation of “kludges” or “quick and dirty fixes” struggling to make sense of who we are and how to deal with our changing social, economic, technological and political environment.

Sometimes the environment is glaringly out-of-step with our capabilities. For example, skunks when faced with a rapidly approaching vehicle have been known to hold their ground, perform a 180 degree manoeuver, lift their tails and spray the oncoming vehicle.

Nevertheless, we are becoming more conscious and collectively smart. But the process is sluggish to give us time to adapt. Skirmishes and set-backs happen. Different places on this earth progress at different speeds. Opposing viewpoints cause us to debate endlessly. Our global connectedness fueled by technology helps us to collaborate quickly and richly to discover creative solutions and make corrections. A little at a time, we are “busting out” of our out-of-date biases in the pursuit of common ground. We are shaping a more progressive, democratic world in which we have the pleasure of ongoing survival.