Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

Deadly Cognitive Biases

Why we fail to see what is right in front of us, and why that's dangerous

We hear it in our therapy offices all the time: “how could I have been so blind! The signs were all around me!” These are the cries of parents who discover their child’s addiction, spouses who learn of their partner’s infidelity, or friends grieving the suicide of someone they held dear. “How could I not have known!”

We know a bit more than we once did about how incomplete and unreliable are our perceptions, and how easily influenced. The “invisible gorilla” experiment has been replicated and confirmed: when people are asked to watch a group of folks – some dressed in white, others in black – passing a basketball around and count the passes among those wearing one color while ignoring the others, about half of them fail to notice a man in a gorilla suit walking through the players. They don’t notice a man in a gorilla suit! The inattention to what is right in front of them occurs even though the challenge is simple and not stressful.

Complexity and emotionality increase our tendency to fail to see the obvious. We miss it even more when encouraged to do so, as when a magician uses “misdirection” to focus the audience on one part of the scene, enabling him to act freely in another part.

Many other cognitive biases pave the road to heartache. Confirmation bias is the tendency to see the information that fits with what we believe, and ignore or discount what doesn’t fit. The addicted teenager may still be keeping his grades up…the parent discounts his mood changes. The spouse is considerate and warm, so the increase in business travel and missed phone calls just don’t seem so significant.

And then there’s the role of motivation. We don’t want to believe our child or our marriage may be in trouble. We can’t even imagine that our friend might be suicidal.

On a macro level, cognitive bias can blind us to global danger headed our way. Islamism is the “invisible gorilla” that has marched through the Middle East and Africa. It’s the same gorilla that brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Hundreds of thousands are dead in Syria. Mass murder, torture and brutality are searing Iraq, as the Islamic State kills Christians and other minorities; along with Muslims they consider apostates. Islamists target civilians in Iraq, as they do in Israel, by firing rockets into cities and building terror tunnels under neighborhoods. Islamists - from Hamas to Boko Haram and the Islamic State - announce their intentions. They boast about them on you tube and write them into their charters. Then they act on their genocidal plans.

So why are we surprised? Cognitive biases.

Like the magician’s misdirection, media misdirection helps us ignore what we should be watching. The media kept us focused on Gaza/Israel, sending nearly 700 journalists to that tiny region, and practically none to the neighboring states of carnage. Keeping the focus narrow makes it harder to see the big picture. A similar cognitive error of narrow focus occurred in the last century when both Nazi Fascism and Communism began their marches of terror and domination.

Media misdirection works in service of another source of cognitive bias, mythology and narrative. The “happy family” narrative makes it harder to see problems in one’s family. In the case of the Hamas/Israel conflict there is a deep well of anti-Semitic lore that makes a Muslim-Jewish conflict reverberate in a way that Muslim-Muslim conflict does not. Cognitive bias means every death is not equally newsworthy.

Motivation, emotion and mythology or narrative, manipulation and design also enter into cognitive biases. But we cannot deal with all of those here. An Iraqi victim of the Islamic State saw the West’s cognitive bias clearly. She told the New Yorker, "In one day, they killed more than two thousand Yazidi in Sinjar, and the whole world says, 'Save Gaza, save Gaza.'"

Cognitive biases are why we fail to “connect the dots” in both personal and national life.

 

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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