Biases that distort our perceptions

I must admit I have a tendency to be overly-optimistic, at times. You might think that optimism is a good strength to have, but it can be problematic when it is misplaced.
For example, there is a café near where I live that has a long history of giving ordinary service with very bad coffee. Generally, I go somewhere else for my coffee.
However, every couple of years or so, I think, ‘Maybe the coffee and service at the original café has improved’. But when I give in to my optimism, I am disappointed all over again.
To be honest, this bias is not too problematic for me and I have learned to counter it somewhat by being aware of this tendency and balancing my optimism with some realism.
But apparently, we all have biased perceptions, at times, which are also known as Cognitive Biases. Psychologists say we are often unaware of our biases, which are problematic when they are inaccurate, irrational, or cause problems for others. In teams, these biased perceptions can also be problematic as they affect the way team members see and relate to each other.
For example, if like me you have a positivity bias, where you assume the best of others, this can be very problematic if you are working with a sociopath!
Here are a few other examples of how our biases can cause problems in teams:


  1. Negativity bias: Team members with this bias often see what is wrong with others, see only the challenges attached to change, and, if they become stuck in this place, their ongoing negativity is likely to impact on the morale of others.

    Such individuals have a greater recall of negative memories than positive ones. So, it can seem they are holding onto grudges from five years ago. However, they are good at being realistic, spotting the challenges, as well as balancing out those annoying, positive types!
  2. Confirmation bias: Such individuals tend to only pay attention to evidence that confirms their opinion and filter out evidence that is contrary.

    This is probably why a team member, who has a very high opinion about their own performance, is often defensive to feedback as, in their mind, they are doing a great job already. They are less likely to be aware of where they can improve their performance.

    People who are quite self-critical, however, will be more likely to see those times their behaviour has fallen short and less likely to notice those times they are doing very well.
  3. Fundamental attribution error: This is where people over-emphasise personality-based explanations for a colleague’s difficult behaviour. They believe that the sole reason a colleague is being difficult is that they are intentionally being disrespectful or are deliberately undermining.

    People with this bias tend to underestimate the influence of environmental factors – such as their colleague dealing with challenges at home or work, that they are different personalities who haven’t as yet figured out how to work well with each other, or the situation in which they have been placed.

    People with a fundamental attribution bias can often assume the worst of others, rather than considering simple, less-malicious explanations for another’s behaviour.
  4. Impact bias: This is where people overestimate the intensity or length of how they will be feeling when considering a challenge.

    For example, many people are reluctant to have a potentially difficult conversation with a colleague, as they fear it is going to be far more difficult than it actually turns out to be.

    It is important for all of us to realise that such feelings do not last forever. And, often, challenges are far less difficult than what we expect. I often say to people to expect the best, but prepare for the worst, just in case.
  5. Mere exposure effect: This is the tendency of some people to prefer the status quo, despite its challenges, simply because of familiarity with how things have been.

    Individuals with such a bias (which is many of us) are often reluctant to embrace significant change and are more likely to stick with their original opinion, even when given evidence of the benefits of change is given.

    People with this bias tend to think that things were better in the past.

Do any of these biases sound familiar to you? They are many more biases, of course. And they are certainly very common. It appears that some biases are determined by life experiences, while others seem to be part of being human.
Having said that, some people are more human than others!

Some psychologists have suggested that these biases are so common, innate and subconscious, that there is no changing them. They are part of our species. However, I am a bit more optimistic than that!
Part of gaining greater control over our biases is simply being alert to them. The more we are aware of how our biases can distort our perceptions, the easier it is to double-check them and find more helpful ways of seeing the situation. I believe we can deliberately practise more helpful ways of thinking until they become automatic or at least, far easier.
However, influencing change with the biases of others is more difficult. It is tempting to tell such individuals to sort themselves out in therapy. However, I think we are better to not take offence, to reassure people of our intentions, to model the behaviour we want to see, and to channel the strengths that are there.

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