How Biases Affect Your Choices and Behavior

Are you Biased? Before you answer that question, first let’s look at what a bias is. A bias, put simply, is a preference or prejudice toward something, such as a particular point of view, a specific way of thinking or an inclination of one choice over another. We may not always be aware of our biases, but we have them…hundreds of them…even thousands of them. So what? Does it really matter? Well, that depends on you. Is every area of your life peachy-keen? If so, then don’t worry about it because they’re obviously not causing any problems for you. However, if you feel stuck in some area of your life or feel like you have an strong preference for or against something and you feel this is holding you back, your biases could be to blame.

Bias Example 1:

You’re in 3rd grade and it’s time for recess. You go outside and see your friends racing each other. It looks like fun so you join them. After several races, you’ve discovered (along with all your friends) that you’re the slowest runner. They tease you and before you know it, your entire class is calling you Turtle. …and *POOF* a bias is born. Of course, I’m oversimplifying this a bit, but I think you probably get the point. Again, biases are strong preferences for or against something. In this example, you’ve developed a bias (a strong preference) against racing your friends. However, it often seems that biases are created in an imprecise way…like the scatter pattern from a shotgun blast. Over time, the boundaries of that bias expand and connect with other biases that are closely-related until you end up with a bias against various forms of competition and against sports. Anything that begins to feel like you’re competing against someone, and anything that begins to feel like your participating in a sporting activity, causes you to react against it. A bias doesn’t even have to be based on truth for it to exist. You could actually be a great runner or be good at some friendly competition, but because of your bias against competition or sports, you avoid them altogether.

Let’s fast forward to the present. Let’s say you’re at work and someone has recently retired from the company. A co-worker walks up to you and whispers, “Hey, I just got out of a meeting and guess what? You and Jones are the only two being considered as a replacement for Smith’s vacant position. And to tell you the truth, I think you’ll get it. Just don’t let Jones pull any tricks on you over the next couple weeks while they observe you two.” Even though that should be great news, you are suddenly depressed and even feeling a little sick. By the time you get home from work, you feel like you’re coming down with something. Over the next two weeks, you miss four days of work because you’re “not feeling well.” No big surprise that Jones gets the promotion and you’re left wondering why you always get shafted. However, in your mind, you can totally justify your behavior because you were “honestly, sick and it couldn’t be helped.” But there’s actually much more going on beneath the surface when your bias-guided behavior kicks in.

Bias Example 2:

You’re out on a date with a really groovy man. You’re digging him and imagining going out with him on future dates. The only peculiar thing you notice is that his cologne is a little strong, but that’s not a big deal. Later that evening, you’ve had a little to drink, but he’s had too much. He starts acting like a jerk and you’re rapidly beginning to feel turned off by him. Just after dusk, you’re walking along a boardwalk by the beach. It’s a beautiful setting, full of people and a lovely beach but your mind is somewhere else. He coaxes you to sit with him on an out-of-the-way bench. You reluctantly agree, though you’re not having any romantic thoughts about this guy at all. The evening ends when he tries to kiss you, his hands begin to wander and, suddenly, he’s all over you. After a few tense moments, several people came to your aid after hearing you struggling. You’re a little shaken up, but you’re okay.

After that one date, you can never smell that brand of cologne without feeling a little sick. The cologne and the bad experience become connected and a bias against that brand of cologne and any guy who wears it has formed. Now, any time you meet a guy wearing that kind of cologne, you instantly “get a bad feeling about him”, even though you don’t know why. You are hyper-critical of guys wearing that cologne or any similarly-scented cologne.

There are a million examples that I could use here. The truth is, our biases are often behind troubles when they arise. But biases are so sneaky that you can rarely spot them when they occur. You are usually left scratching your head in utter confusion as to why you keep running into the same problem again and again. Many biases are benign, such as a bias toward chocolate ice cream rather than vanilla or green as your favorite color. When green is your favorite color, is it really a surprise that your closet has more green clothes than any other color? Nope, no shocking revelation here. You like green. No big deal. However, sometimes your biases can taint your interpretation of your own experiences and cause you to react before you even know what hit you.

A Few More Examples:

  • A fear of (or bias against) “Muslims” might cause you to misidentify a mugger (someone you also fear) as a man of Middle-Eastern origin…who you called a “Muslim”.
  • You might recall a vehicle you witnessed in a hit-and-run as being red (the same color as a car that hit the car you were in during an accident when you were a kid), even though other eyewitnesses said the car was blue.
  • While serving for jury duty, all the evidence that supports a young man’s innocence is subconsciously filtered out by you in favor of the weak evidence that supports his guilt because he looks similar to a man who attacked your dog many years earlier, even though you can’t consciously recall much about the dog-attacker today.

Are you biased? You bet you are! The trick, then, is to be aware that you are biased and consider that fact when you’re trying to make sense of recurring problems in your life or some kind of irrational desire to avoid or to do something. This understanding will open new options for how you react to the the same old patterns that seem to plague you in life.

This is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the psychology of biases, rather it’s meant to be a broad overview…something to consider and use to better understand your own behavior. I’ll be writing more about different forms of bias in the future, but I’m sure this introduction will help you begin to see how they’re working for or against you in your life. So the next time you feel a strong preference for or against something, you’ll have a better understanding how it developed and how may be influencing your choices and behavior.

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