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What Color Is Your Lens?

Cognitive Bias + Techniques That Work

By Bethanie SherwoodPublished 11 months ago 8 min read
Photo Credit: Vadmary (Canva Pro)

There's an analogy in philosophy that compares perspective to a lens. The idea that each of us can look at the same object and interpret different things is fascinating, but growth doesn't come until you try to broaden your worldview. Perspective shifts are no small feat, and it isn't something that can be forced. Each person must come to a conclusion independently and on their timeline. However, with the exception of a few cases, perspectives can be (and usually are) challenged.

It is my belief that if every person we met thought and acted just like us, we'd be bored and, more importantly, obsolete. There are plenty of avenues you could take to study this concept if you want to, but my favorites are rooted in psychology. Our brains are spectacular organs.

Understanding The Impact

As mentioned, our brains try really hard. They are our number one supporters (no matter how flawed in execution) and they want us to thrive. Consider how much information your brain takes in during a typical 8-hour workday. In addition to the basic functions of your body (e.g., movement, digestion, mood), it's constantly absorbing external information. In fact, our brains continue working long after we've shut our eyes and (ideally) fallen into a comfortable pattern of REM sleep.

In an effort to manage continuous input more effectively, our brains rely on heuristics (click here for APA definition). Loosely translated, it's a shortcut to help us digest information based on our previous experiences. Because heuristics aid us in problem-solving, decision-making, and other judgment-related issues without examining concrete facts, the outcome is rarely objective. This is cognitive bias.

The founders (Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, 1972) published a book with Paul Slovic entitled Judgment Under Uncertainty. They cautioned that it seemed improbable to "completely eliminate the brain's predisposition". However, it feels important to know when these shortcuts are put to use. We can attempt this by getting to know our biases, which allows us to recognize when a judgment is subjective and regroup. Some may be instantaneous, others will take time.

"Cognitive biases can affect your decision-making skills, limit your problem-solving abilities, hamper your career success, damage the reliability of your memories, challenge your ability to respond in crisis situations, increase anxiety and depression, and impair your relationships". Source

Common Themes

Since our brains are very thorough, there is no shortage of cognitive bias. Jason Spendelow (clinical psychologist) grouped them into four categories: availability and selection of information, decision-making context, making predictions, and creating false links. An easier method of uncovering cognitive bias is by examining cognitive distortions (also referred to as distorted thinking or thinking errors). The latter term received most of its popularity from psychotherapy and is often accompanied by homework exercises that can be completed independently.

While wording can differ, cognitive distortions (which fall beneath the umbrella of cognitive bias) are recognized as follows:

1. Magnification and minimization: exaggerating or minimizing the importance of events (e.g., achievements are unimportant, mistakes are excessively important)

1a. Catastrophizing: seeing only the worst outcomes

2. Overgeneralization: broad interpretations from a single or few events. (e.g., "I felt awkward during my job interview. I am always so awkward")

3. Magical thinking: actions influence unrelated situations (e.g., "I am a good person - bad things shouldn't happen to me")

4. Personalization: you are responsible for events outside of your control (e.g., "my mom is always upset. She would be fine if I did more to help her")

5. Jumping to conclusions: interpreting the meaning of a situation with little or no evidence

5a. Mind reading: interpreting the thoughts/beliefs of others without adequate evidence (e.g., "She would not go on a date with me. She probably thinks I'm ugly")

5b. Fortune telling: expectation that a situation will turn out badly without adequate evidence

6. Emotional reasoning: emotions reflect the way things really are (e.g., "I feel like a bad friend, therefore I must be a bad friend")

7. Disqualifying the positive: recognizing only the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. (e.g., receiving many compliments during an evaluation but only focusing on a single piece of negative feedback)

8. "Should" statements: things should be a certain way (e.g., "I should always be friendly")

9. All-or-nothing (black-and-white) thinking: absolutes such as "always, never, every" (e.g., "I never do a good enough job on anything")

A wise therapist once told me, as an example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, they are just cutting off a random car, not you, because they have no idea who you are. So there’s no reason to take it personally. To personalize situations like this just makes you upset. If you don’t take it personally, it changes it from "jerk cut me off" to "people should drive more safely." . . . None of us are devoid of all emotions that could undermine our logical processes. Everyone backslides and falls into old habits. We aim for progress, not perfection. Source

A Worthy Contender

Cognitive distortions are not the same as cognitive biases, but recognizing and reframing distorted thinking can help bring awareness to the underlying bias. There are a few methods available to address cognitive distortions, including but not limited to increasing awareness of your thoughts, Socratic questioning, guided imagery, thought records, decatastrophization, and cognitive restructuring exercises.

We won't be able to cover each method in this article, so we'll stick to Socratic questioning (interested in more methods? Start here). The basic outline for Socratic questioning is as follows:

1. Is this thought realistic?

2. Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?

3. What is the evidence for this thought?

4. Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?

5. Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?

6. Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?

In reference to cognitive bias, in particular, clinical psychologist, Jason Spendelow promotes a common five-step process:

Question 1: What is my prediction or explanation?

Action: Record a prediction or detail you wish to examine in specific detail. A vague account will not help. 

Examples: The sentence 'Something bad is going to happen' would not be as descriptive as 'Gina will hate my restructuring plan and think I don't have sufficient skill to perform this role'.  

Question 2: What information have I used to make my prediction or evaluation?

Action: Predictions and explanations do not appear from thin air. Reflect on what information has been fed into the process. Again, detail is your friend. 

Question 3: Are there any issues with this information?

Action: This stage involves considering the quality and relevance of the information listed in step 2. Look for biases and heuristics as listed in this article. 

Question 4: What information do I need for a more informed decision, explanation, or prediction?

Action: If the quality-control process of step 3 raises red flags, you now devise an optimal response. Do you need additional information? Do I need to challenge biases uncovered in step 3?

Question 5: When do I need to update and/or review?

Action: Reflection and review are essential for maximum learning. Decide on a logical point at which to update an explanation or prediction. The right time might be right after step 4. Alternatively, you may need to gather additional information or try something out before performing step 5.

Ultimately, when challenging thought distortions or cognitive bias, you want an exercise that empowers you to challenge the bias with facts. However, before you can address the bias, you need to be able to recognize it. It can be an incredibly difficult thing. In my opinion, the bible does a great job of promoting accountability in this area.

Matthew 7:3-5 says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye".

But...what happens if someone is unaware of the plank in their eye? The question only occurred to me because it's true of most people. Once we've spent some time walking around with a plank in our eye, we tend to just assume that's the way things are now. Luckily for us, scientists never tire of questions. This article describes four habits that can help build familiarity with your thoughts so that you can recognize harmful patterns and take action (using the exercises above).

Closing Commentary

Earlier in this article, I shared a belief of mine. I theorized that if every person thought and acted the same, we, as a species, would be bored and obsolete. However, it's unlikely that everyone agrees. Chances are there is someone out there who would prefer it. Maybe there's an allure to being perfectly in sync or comfort in the lack of friction that would accompany a world like that.

I don't have the ability to decide for every living organism on this planet. Nor would I want to. I prefer learning on the fly, and the only way I can picture a universe full of novelty is through the differences that create it. Then again, that's my lens. What's yours?

wellnessself caresciencepsychologymental healthhumanityhow toadvice

About the Creator

Bethanie Sherwood

Writer + Illustrator in northwest Iowa. Previously known as Ziza Dabbles. Check out more of my work, here!

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