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Bias and Belonging

Updated: Mar 19, 2022

As a teenager, I yearned for belonging - to find my tribe. Moving to a senior school where I hardly knew anyone had been tough. Eventually finding a group of friends was like being thrown a life line. The sense of belonging (or not) has continued to matter through my adult life.

From an evolutionary point of view, it is unsurprising that my teen experience packed an emotional punch. We humans are social animals: being part of a group is essential not just for our wellbeing but for our very survival. Yet, in a world riven by conflict and polarisation, the darker sides of tribalism are in plain sight.

Our views are largely formed - and further reinforced - within the particular social groups we belong to; a set of beliefs and values that in many cases we have not examined but simply assume to be right. The tendency to filter new information through the lens of one’s pre-existing views is known as confirmation or "myside" bias.

Another form of bias with a more individualistic slant is egocentrism. Again, I assume that my view is the right view and moreover that I am somehow immune to the failings I recognise in others. While I might not claim to have a uniquely accurate worldview, I behave as if I do. The assumption that "I alone am special and different" may also have evolutionary advantages. But it does create problems.

Biases can be very easy to spot…at least in other people! Unfortunately, noticing others expressing obviously one-sided opinions can actually reinforce my own assumption of being 'in the right'! Recognising bias in myself is turning out to be a tricky business.

One thing about biases is that they mostly operate under the radar. By definition, it is hard to see your own blind spots. So, what is to be done? Can we move beyond our tribal, egotistical tendencies?

Naming them is a step towards recognising our own biases. Here are a few more:

  • False omniscience: the fool who thinks they know everything can be contrasted with the wise person who recognises the limits of their understanding.

  • False omnipotence: believing one has more power than one actually has, for example thinking that stating something to be the case actually makes it true.

  • The actor-observer effect: the view that “when things go well it’s because of my skills…when things go badly, it’s due to forces beyond my control”.

  • False invulnerability: the belief that you are untouchable - “bad things happen to other people but wouldn’t happen to me”.

  • The sunk-cost fallacy: investing more and more in something that isn’t working, such as ‘throwing good money after bad’.

  • The idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’: for example, when we ignore inconvenient truths.

But simply knowing about these biases is probably not enough to promote any real change. Reflection, including openness to recognise one’s shortcomings is also necessary. This requires self-awareness, and further supports its development in a ‘virtuous circle’. Self-compassion also helps, as we accept that it is OK to be imperfect and to admit our limitations.

To reflect on one bias may help us recognise others. To counter false omniscience, we can start by recognising that knowledge has 5 aspects:

  1. What we do know: a good basis for wise decisions.

  2. What we know we don’t know: factoring this in is an essential element of wise decision-making

  3. What we think we know but don’t know: blind beliefs of all kinds and a major source of bias.

  4. What we don’t think we know but do know: for example, sensing that something or someone could be a threat without knowing why.

  5. What we don’t know that we don’t know: potentially the most problematic, even dangerous lack of knowledge and the source of much bias. Bearing in mind that I will certainly not know about that which I don’t know is an essential attribute of a wise person

In a world of misinformation and ‘alternative facts’, misunderstandings and conflicts thrive. To acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and understanding may be a small step towards a better world: one in which every one of us, after all, belongs.

With thanks to Robert Sternberg and Judith Gluck, authors of ‘Wisdom: the psychology of wise thoughts, words and deeds’

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