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Breaking Biases

It was a dark and stormy night. That sounds like a great way to start a mystery but on this dark and stormy night, the activity was well expected. Michael’s daughter and her friend had plans to attend the local professional soccer team’s Saturday night game. Saturday games are typically well attended, often close to standing room only. This particular Saturday started clear and sunny but as time neared the evening kick-off, clouds and then thunderstorms with heavy downpours and high winds rolled in. The National Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm then tornado warnings. The sudden severe weather left most of the fans frozen in place, unable or willing to challenge Mother Nature and make a dash for their cars, not that the roads would more welcoming.


The severe thunderstorms were offering the area the strongest flashes of lightning and loudest cracks of thunder for the season. She knew her dog typically tolerated thunder, but loud booming clashes made her canine companion anxious and he’d been so for a couple days. Not being able to see him in any of the house cameras through her phone made her anxious. As her anxiety rose, her human companion at the game similarly was having difficulty reaching his father and feared he had gone out and with his poor night vision what might happen. With no reason other than something might have happened, they assumed something could have happened. They “jumped to conclusions” or some might say, experienced a type of “cognitive bias”, a tendency to interpret information that supports pre-existing beliefs or expectations leading to inaccurate results or decisions.


Cognitive biases play a bigger role in our lives that we might like to think. Sometimes very big. During a routine flight on October 11, 1983, the generator fault warning light on Air Illinois Flight 710 came on. The plane has two generators, the one attached to the right motor and propeller had a history of maintenance issues and repairs. Assuming that was the faulty generator, the First Officer disconnected it from the electrical system to prevent further damage. It was in fact, the left generator that had experienced a short circuit and shut down. The crew was unable to reconnect the working generator and attempted to proceed to their destination on battery power alone. Not enough power was available in the batteries and the plane crashed. The crew’s assumption that the right battery was at fault because of a history of faults and repairs contributed to the death of all aboard.


In most of our daily activities cognitive bias may not be as dramatic as a plane falling out of the sky, nor as benign as concern for a parent or a pet during a storm yet can still cause significant consequences. A child with a history of staying out late is delayed due to car trouble. Before they can report the incident and what they did to address the situation, the parent metes out the punishment and swears “that kid will never be allowed to drive again,” leaving the child and parent feeling cold toward each other. A boss who routinely hijackers employees’ work and presents it as their own has been instructed to attend management classes to correct this character flaw. Unaware of this, employees assume upper management doesn’t care about them and they will never be recognized for their work, thus decide to not work harder than necessary to meet the minimum requirements. Department output goes down and when work audits are performed, upper management is left considering closing that department, shifting the responsibilities to other already overworked supervisors and staff.


In these cases, nobody on either side of the partnership questioned, listened, and discussed, to determine the actual cause a valid presumption of the actions but makes assumptions based on past behavior as act as that it has be predestined to happen the same way with the same results.


More mundane examples of cognitive biases can be noted almost daily. Not selecting a particular checkout lane in the supermarket because “that clerk is always slow.” Being late for a doctor appointment because “they always run late anyway.” Taking the long way home from work because “nobody knows how to drive through town.” Those merely inconvenience the one deciding to seek out a different cashier or drive miles out their way. Some though affect others, like not going to the school winter concert because “they’re always take so long,” or refusing to attend a relative’s birthday party because “he always talks too much.” These deprive family members of needed support and a show of familial love.


Cognitive biases are a difficult biases to overcome because the solution requires you to slow down, actively think and review a situation, and not question what you already believe to be true – or in other words, don’t jump to conclusions. There are many types of cognitive biases but the process of breaking the habit of misinterpreting information whether intentionally or by habit is not impossible. In general, consider all the information critically and do not assuming an outcome. Learn to break through your biases and in the process form a tighter bond with those around you, whether family, friends, fellow students, or colleagues.


Everybody deserves to be taken seriously and treated with respect. Listening, discussing, and collaborating are cornerstones in communication and communication is the key to living, working, and playing well together. Living a life managed by knowledge and reality rather than assumption and supposition is living a life inharmony with those you love.


And dad and dog were both fine.




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Such a terrific post. I find myself carrying around unnecessary luggage 😉...those bits and pieces from prior experiences that really aren't very applicable to what's in front of me, yet it can feel like a sense of "knowing". I call it my very terrible/awful foreshadowing. Anticipating what will happen based on prior (and often negative) experiences. Letting that bias go can be oh-so liberating! Thanks for the excellent food for thought...reminders to check myself.

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Thank you Vicki. What another great way of looking at this. “Letting that bias go can be on-so liberating!” It is! It’s looking at every moment as if it is the first time you are seeing it, which is exactly what is happening. We suppose anticipation isn’t always so terrible, but expectation shines a whole different light in it. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. We hope it foreshadows many more insightful discussions!

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My dad taught me what "assume" meant at an early age. His insistence on believing the best in others and not always having a half-empty mentality has encouraged me to assess situations differently. It doesn't mean I do it always. It's often easier to believe a lie than the truth. Thanks for sharing these insights. Culturally we're encouraged to believe the worst--it tends to make us look better by comparison. But it does nothing for relationships.

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That’s a great way to look at things Dayle - with half full mentality! No, it isn’t easy but it feels better. We may have been short-sighted on our examples. Biases don’t just happen with negative experiences. Positive past behavior can sometimes set us up for stresses also, like I always ace tests so I don’t have to study, or everyone likes me so I know I’ll get that second date, or things come easily to me so it’s a cinch I’ll get that promotion. Yes, your half full mentality will work there too. Guarded optimism! Thank you for reading and commenting.

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