Bias blind spot: How biases make our lives complex

August 24, 2020 4:40 AM

When we operate from within our blind spot, we are more likely to reject inputs of others, including of experts.

The bias blind spot can be extremely problematic; when we operate from within our blind spot, we are more likely to reject inputs of others, including experts in a particular area.
By Vidya Hattangadi

We all have some form of unconscious bias. It is part of what makes us human. But when we observe our understanding of this, we get blinded to our own nurtured biases. It is not easy for us to accept about our biases. It is like a blind spot. Most people have no idea of how biased they actually are. But they feel that most people around them are more biased than they themselves are.

We all fail to notice our own cognitive biases. The fact is we all may be drawn to a particular style or way of working without being aware of it. For instance, we tend to get friendly with people who match our own ways of seeing the world and are unaware we are doing so. It would be incorrect to say that we would find an unbiased person easily … colour, class, race, gender, nepotism all are biases that are going on and on because of the bias blind spot. We are unaware of our own actual degree of bias. The more we feel that we are less biased than others, the less we are clear of our own understanding.

This is a typical example of a bias blind spot: In the US, most citizens argue about gun control; people are convinced that more guns lead to more violence. On the other hand, people buy guns to protect themselves because they are convinced that they are more likely to be harmed if they don’t have guns, so they buy and store guns. Don’t we always make a decision and interpret it with data to justify? We see patterns based on our past experiences, and connect the dots at an almost innate level.

This is another good example: When physicians receive gifts from pharmaceutical companies, they tell others that these gifts do not affect their decisions about what medicine to prescribe because they have no memory of gifts biasing their prescription. Nevertheless, if you ask them whether a gift might unconsciously bias the decisions of other physicians, most will agree that other physicians are unconsciously biased by gifts, while continuing to believe that their own decisions are not.

Our five senses supply us with incredible amounts of data constantly. It is unfeasible for the human brain to process all the information received as it is too huge. To make our lives easier, our brains are programmed to take shortcuts when interpreting data. We subconsciously develop a set of rules that we plug into unconsciously that allow us to make immediate decisions and judgements. We develop our biases through genetics, through education, through the work we do, through the people we interact with, the culture we grow up in, our childhood experience, our friends, our teachers, the way we are brought up, etc. The best part is that our biases don’t always serve to be right. In the modern world, our inherent biases make our lives complicated. Our blind spots are visible to others, but we don’t see them.

The bias blind spot can be extremely problematic; when we operate from within our blind spot, we are more likely to reject inputs of others, including experts in a particular area. In 1958, Mao Zedong wanted to rapidly industrialise China. He banned all private holdings and created communes where peasants who no longer owned their own land would live together in a field and would be forced to work on steel instead of farming. Each farm would be given a steel furnace and often every peasant in the commune was forced to work long hours. Mao also tried to improve farming through a number of ill-advised techniques set forth by Trofim Lysenko. The techniques decreased grain production, but local leaders were under so much pressure that they actually falsely reported large increases in grain production in order to please their superiors.

Unfortunately, these numbers were used to determine how much grain was sent to the capital to be used for export; false numbers meant little, if any, grain was left to feed the peasants. These and other polices of the Great Leap Forward are believed to be responsible for the Chinese Famine, which resulted in deaths of millions of Chinese. In fact, 30-40% of all houses were also destroyed as part of the Great Leap Forward as the materials were needed for their efforts to industrialise. Even as Mao knew his people were starving, he continued to export grain in order to save face, and some even claim he knew millions would die through his programme but he thought it was a worthwhile sacrifice. The economy also failed as the period of the Great Leap (1958-61) was the only time between 1953 and 1973 that the economy regressed.

Who has been the biggest mass murderer in history? Most people probably assume that the answer is Adolf Hitler, architect of the Holocaust. Others might guess Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who may indeed have managed to kill even more innocent people than Hitler did, but both Hitler and Stalin were outdone by Mao. His Great Leap Forward policy led to deaths of up to 45 million people, easily making it the biggest episode of mass murder ever recorded. The fact is that communists have a bias blind spot in their basic thinking; the rule by communist parties often leads to totalitarianism, political repression, restrictions of human rights, poor economic performance, and cultural and artistic censorship. If not checked in time, a bias blind spot can get dangerous beyond the control of any kind.

The author is a management thinker and blogger

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