Biases & Cultural Dogma

This morning I was having a conversation with a close friend who made some comments around her belief that the world is getting worse. It’s easy to buy into this point of view with the amount of bad news that constantly confronts us. Instead of debating the point, I decided to share with her the work of Hans Rosling. Professor Rosling wrote a book called Factfulness, which highlights the statistical data indicating that, by most measures, the world is actually getting better. However, a study done in 2015 showed that across Europe and North America, less than 10% of the population believes the world is improving. This points to one of our many biases referred to as negativity bias. 

We have many biases, which are highlighted in Daniel Kahneman’s work and his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Heuristics refers to the short cuts the brain makes in processing information, allowing us to make quicker decisions based on experience and personal assumptions. Kahneman points out how flawed this process can often be. Human beings often jump to erroneous conclusions and are also very susceptible to outside influences, especially cultural norms. These can significantly distort our world view and our ability to make independent well-considered decisions. 

It is important to remember that no one is immune from biases. The scientists who do our research, the teachers who teach our children and the politicians who lead nations all have biases. These can be driven by politics, religion, economics, conflict of interest, personal experience and even good intentions. Our communication and our sources of information are being negatively impacted by many biases that then inform our own beliefs about the world we live in. Negativity bias is only one of these. Others include herd mentality, where influencers or popular opinion drive individual choice and behaviour. Or the narrative fallacy, which describes people’s willingness to believe a story over facts or data because it feels more compelling or relatable. At the top of my list is confirmation bias, which is when people gravitate to information that confirms their existing opinions. This bias is amplified by the algorithms that curate the digital information we receive as well as the echo chambers that develop when we surround ourselves with people and sources of information that mirror our own perspectives. 

This wide range of biases seems to be driving a great deal of polarisation in the world along with negatively biased cultural dogmas. How healthy can it be for our opinions to be based on memes and sound bites? When you start speaking in slogans or parroting the headlines you’ve heard in passing, then it is time to reflect on whether your opinions are really your own. Suppose you demonise someone whose opinion you disagree with or discredit a person because their opinion on one topic is out of step with the standard narrative. This is a clear sign your bias is getting in the way. I have heard claims as ridiculous as Jewish people referred to as Nazis or people asking legitimate questions labelled conspiracy theorists for questioning the legitimacy of contemporary cultural assumptions. Such behaviour undermines our ability to engage in the kind of healthy debate that could lead to greater clarity and understanding.

Our opinions and our thinking habits affect many things, including our mental health, our stress levels, our success, and our happiness. It is difficult enough to navigate our own biases without having to consider the unconscious and intentional biases embedded within the information that we are exposed to daily. When reflecting on your own thoughts or processing the information around you, it is essential to ask some straightforward questions such as: Is this true? How do I know it’s true? If something is important to you, seek out different perspectives and opinions. Remember that a great deal of what you hear and read is opinion or theory. Finally, let go of what you can’t control. If you can make a positive contribution through your behaviours and choices, it is worth spending mental energy on. Take time to get the facts straight on those things. If you can ignore the rest, you will be healthier, happier and more successful.