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Unconsciously biased [Thinking is hard series]

This article is part of the Thinking is hard series from Buster Benson, offering insights into the cognitive biases that distort our thinking, and exploring related topics such as debate, persuasion, and systems thinking.

We had unconscious bias training this week at work. One of my favorite topics. I’ve probably visited this Wikipedia page more often than any other Wikipedia page … there’s just so much to learn and remind myself of sitting on that one unassuming page.

Unconscious cognitive biases are interesting to me for a few reasons:

  1. Because they are blind spots. Like blind spots in a car, the spots aren’t blind because they are undiscovered, but because of the shape of cars, and our placement in them. Likewise we have cognitive biases not because we just never learned about them, but because of the shapes of our minds, and how we need to use them.
  1. Because you can’t get rid of them. We need our subconscious to do almost all the work for us. And the way they work is by finding patterns, shortcuts, and simple gimmicks that allow brains to take in way too much information and still make use of it.
  1. Because studying them is slippery. Whatever system you create to deal with the side effects of unconscious bias will itself make you subject to new ones. In fact, the way they work is by creating systems of thought that help you remember and act on important things. By promoting these “important” things they have to also demote “unimportant” things. And when you therefore become blind to a big enough pool of “unimportant” things, it becomes more likely that something actually important is hidden in that pile.
  1. Because even though it’s somewhat futile, there’s still tremendous value in remembering that you can’t remember everything. In believing that some of your beliefs are wrong. In not being 100% certain of the things you feel 100% certain about. In absolutely knowing that you absolutely cannot know the full truth.
  1. Because a paradox occurs when you use your brain to figure out how your brain isn’t working right. You can’t think straight with unconscious biases and you can’t think straight without them.

Who will be the next unpredictable overnight success?

When will the next economic crash happen?

Which giant industry will be disrupted next?

You can’t answer these questions because the options are unavailable to you. The best you can do is use various tricks to summon possibilities into your brain, possibly sourced from news articles, books, movies, pet theories, and random association. Your unconscious essentially builds the buffet of ideas and you do your best to pick out something good enough to pass your low bar of defensibility.

But at no point do we have an opportunity to choose an option we don’t know about.

What are the chances that we find our car keys in the only part of the street that is lit up?

The keys often fall in the dark part of the street, inaccessible to us. We can never know what we don’t know.

All we can know is that we don’t know stuff.

The best way to approach a situation of lost keys on a dark street is to be fully accepting of the fact that you might not find them.

Article source: Unconsciously Biased. Reproduced by permission.

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Buster Benson

Thinking is hard. Platform product lead at @SlackHQ. Also helping a bit with @coachdotme, @NaNoWriMo, @750words. Previously @Twitter and @Amazon.

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