Biases are shortcuts to solve four brain problems

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blogs can be found here: If you're biased and you know it clap your hands.

 

Our brain's fundamental goal is to keep us alive. (That's good).

To do that it's constantly scanning and searching our environments for any dangers or threats (That's helpful).


But there are 4 problems our brains run up against.

  1. There’s too much information coming in

  2. There’s too much happening to remember everything

  3. There’s not enough meaning to have a complete picture.

  4. There’s not enough time to analyse everything.

Our brain doesn't like problems - so it looks for ways to solve them.


Shortcuts to solve our problems

To solve these problems our brain has to use shortcuts.


There’s too much information coming in, so we filter and only recognise what we think we need to.

There’s too much to remember everything, so we try to remember important things.

There’s not enough meaning, so we fill in the gaps.

There’s not enough time, so we act faced with the information we have.


These shortcuts are help us make associations, fill in gaps, and draw meaning based on our previous experiences or priming. And this is cognitive bias in action.


Biases normal. If you have a brain you have bias. Our biases are just tools our brain uses to help us solve these problems. They can be really helpful at times - and massively harmful at others.


All this happens in milliseconds – and constantly. So how can we make our unconscious, more conscious?


Step one: build awareness. Here's a great place to start: The Cognitive Bias Codex. It was created by John Manoogian III based on Buster Benson's work.

Start on the outside and work your way in. The four problems show in the four corners. Around the outer ring you can see the shortcuts our brains have made to help up. These are bulleted below under each problem.


Each of these shortcuts or tendencies lead to different biases in how we think, feel and behave. The biases are listed on the inner ring.


We're working our way through and featuring different biases and how they affect our thinking, decision making and work.


1. There's too much information

Think about it: By some estimates, our brain unconsciously processes about 11 million 'bits of information' per second. Per second. Our brain is constantly bombarded with information about what's happening internally and what we're perceiving externally. We have to filter some of it out.


It’s hard to wade through the information and decide what to focus on. So:

  • We noticed things already primed in our memories or repeated often

  • Bizarre, funny, visually-striking, or anthropomorphic things stick out more than ordinary/unfunny things. (see: HUMOUR EFFECT)

  • We notice when something has changed.

  • We're drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs..

  • We notice flaws in others more easily than we notice flaws in ourselves.

What's the problem?

We can filter out important and useful information. We're primed to only notice certain things so we can over-exaggerate its relavance in our heads.


2. We can't remember everything

We don't have perfect memories that can accurately store every word and detail of what's happening. The longer we go from the event, the worse our accuracy of the memory is. Five people can attend the same meeting and remember completely different things about it.


We aren't a recorder. And how we store and process memories is quite individual - from their lens. It's their version of reality. (Check out Hilary's blog on reality!)


So:

  • We store memories differently based on how they are experienced.

  • We reduce events and lists to their key elements. (see: PRIMACY EFFECT)

  • We discard specifics to form generalities.

  • We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact.

What's the problem?

Our memories our flawed. What we remember, how we remember it and the meaning we attribute to it reinforces biases.

3. There's not enough meaning

So we:

  • We tend to find stories when looking at sparse data.

  • We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories. (see: GROUP ATTRIBUTION ERROR)

  • We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better.

  • We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about.

  • We think we know what other people are thinking.

We project our current mindset and assumptions onto the past and future. (see: HINDSIGHT BIAS) What's the problem? We project and fill in details based on our assumptions. We begin to conjure up stories that might not really be there.


4. We need to act fast

So we:

  • We favour simple-looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options.

  • To avoid mistakes, we aim to preserve autonomy and group status and avoid irreversible decisions. (see: STATUS QUO BIAS)

  • To get things done, we tend to complete things we’ve invested time & energy in. (see: IKEA EFFECT)

  • To stay focused, we favour the immediate, relatable thing in front of us.

  • To act, we must be confident we can make an impact and feel what we do is important.

What's the problem? Our System 1 - quick thinking can lead us to quick reactions which aren't fair and can be counterproductive.


If you look through our bias blogs series, you'll see each of the biases we explore are connected back to our brain trying to solve one of these core problems.


The bias isn't the problem - it's natural. The problem is what our biases lead to: poorer decisions, people feeling excluded and worse outcomes for everyone.


References

Buster, Benson. The cognitive bias cheat sheet https://betterhumans.pub/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18