The world is noisy and writhing with sensory stimulation, and there is too much information for our brains to process at any given time. For this reason, we have a number of cognitive processing capacities, such as selective attention, which help us to focus on the things which are important.
Without these capacities, we would be overwhelmed with information and unable to process any of it in a meaningful way.
We also have access to a number of mechanisms which support these broader cognitive capacities to navigate our sensorially overloaded environment. For example, heuristics, which are basically mental shortcuts, help us to make decisions quickly. Based on previous experiences and knowledge, heuristics enable us to quickly make sense of a situation and decide in an efficient and (somewhat) effective manner.
However, there is a catch.
Whilst heuristics can make us efficient decision makers, they can also lead to cognitive biases. This means that we make decisions based on things which appear obvious or meaningful to us in that moment, rather than evaluating all of the possibilities we could consider. In essence, the decisions we make in the present are close replicas of decisions we have made previously, even if the circumstances are different.
One of the cognitive biases that appears to be playing out in the world at the moment is that of confirmation bias.
This means that when we believe something to be true, we are extremely proficient at noticing or finding evidence in support of our beliefs. We notice things that align with our thinking and use them to reinforce how right we were in the first place. The clues we look for to confirm our beliefs are already more salient to us, simply because we have been thinking about them.
A simplistic example of this is when you buy a new car or decide what car you would like to buy. Suddenly, everywhere you look, you notice others driving that kind of car. You may ask yourself, “Why are there suddenly so many cars just like my new one?” The most likely answer is that they were always there. You just didn’t notice them, until you decided to buy that type of car, and it became salient to you.
In the same way, when we have beliefs about groups of people or the way things “are” or “should be”, we can easily find confirmation for our perspective.
We surround ourselves with people who think like us. We read books and listen to podcasts by people who talk like us. We may convince ourselves that we are open to an impartial version of the truth because we get our information from the news, but we are drawn to news services that speak our language and confirm our beliefs.
If we are feeling brave, we may even engage in debate in public forums, with people who don’t agree with us. Although I tend to avoid these types of discussions, so my perspective is limited, I am yet to see a thread where anyone convinced anyone else of their position. Rather, it seems that those who disagree become further entrenched in their position, and the gap between the perspectives widens rather than narrows. As far as I can tell that type of dialogue typically isn’t about broadening one’s understanding. It is about imposing one’s version of reality on the other and asserting the need to be right.
It is human to want to feel safe, connected, and, let’s face it, right.
It is natural to want to be with others who allow us to feel those things. However, when we only listen and learn from those who are saying what we think we already know, we are amplifying our confirmation biases and protecting our status quo. That is understandable, especially when our status quo is serving us well. However, it can also be dangerous.
It is dangerous when our status quo contains beliefs about ourselves or others that are negative or harmful. It is dangerous when our status quo enables us to pretend that everything is ok, when clearly it is not. It is extremely dangerous when our status quo creates the safety of an “us vs them” dichotomy, which in turn provides the space to blame others for the way the world mistreats them.
As we grapple with recent events which have made it impossible to pretend that everything is ok, I believe it is important to ask questions, starting with ourselves.
We need to ask ourselves not only what we believe, but also why we believe it. If we think we know something, especially about another person’s experiences, we need to ask ourselves, “How do I know?”. Unless the answer is because we have personally lived that experience, it’s imperative that we acknowledge the limitation to our understanding.
In the space that we create between thinking that we know, and recognising that we don’t know, we provide an opportunity to learn and grow.
If we approach our world with curiosity and compassion, rather than the conviction that we know, there is space for us to learn from each other. When the problems are complicated and the answers seem beyond our reach, there is power in questions. If only to get the conversation started, ask yourself what you know and how you know, and be open to the possibility that actually you don’t. As Alfred Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory”. Perhaps we all need to check our maps and be open to some recalibration.
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