What’s Really Behind the Curtain?

The social and emotional perils of self-created cognitive bias

Posted Sep 30, 2016

We all have a unique worldview. It’s informed by our expectations, assumptions and ideas about the way the world works. These develop out of our internalization and interpretation of objective reality, which translates into our subjective reality, or, more plainly, our belief system. The parts of our belief system we share with others in our tribe or community, in turn, create the basis for our social context. So, what happens when the expectations, assumptions and ideas we begin from are misplaced? More to the point, what happens when we figure that out? Well, that’s when we may discover things aren’t exactly as they seem.

Cognitive bias is not a new idea. In fact, it’s something inherent in human thought. It’s also often at the root of conflict, because the anticipated agreements of our shared reality don’t match up. It might be as complex as the centuries-old strife in the Middle East, or as simple as Coke versus Pepsi. Basically, cognitive bias comes down to having an idea about something and sticking with it, even with evidence to the contrary or in the face of other opinions.

There are dozens of kinds of cognitive bias that have been described and cataloged by science over the years. Introducing self-created cognitive bias—where we interject our own distorted worldview into our subjective experience—is often at the heart of our self-imposed internal conflict, and it can seriously complicate things for us, both socially and emotionally.

Bias is essentially a systematic and definable pattern of deviation from some expected norm. When we talk about bias and the way we think, we’re basically describing a distortion in judgment. This is where those misplaced expectations, assumptions and ideas come into play. If—or, more properly, when—we start out with a skewed worldview, we end up experiencing something one way, when, in reality, it’s something quite different. This can be disastrous in terms of relationship, and why, in part, we often find ourselves repeating relationships. We quite literally can’t get out of our own way.

Socially and emotionally, our worldview is, in part, driven by our faith in people, which is the social glue of the relationships we form. The other side of that coin is why we often find ourselves cleaning up some bit of chaos or other, even though we were promised it wouldn’t happen again. That chaos might be internal or external, but the reason it feels so disruptive is because, not only did we not anticipate it, we keep not anticipating it. Our judgment is clouded—or, more properly, distorted—by our self-imposed biases.

For instance, if we have a relationship with someone—platonic or otherwise—our experience of that relationship is based on the expectations, assumptions and ideas we bring to it. If our worldview is skewed, for whatever reason, that experience will likely not match the reality of the relationship. Only when we realize our anticipated experience doesn’t match that reality can we shift our perspective. Until then, we will, in all probability, stay where we are, both socially and emotionally, playing out our biases and finding ourselves repeatedly cleaning up that little bit of chaos that keeps showing up.

Breaking through our biases is further complicated because, in some measure, they feed our self-perception. Returning to our fated relationship, the way we are in it is, in part, informed by the other person’s worldview. Should the other person have a perception of us as being one way—let’s say flighty or impulsive—he or she will treat us in a way consistent with that expectation. If we are consistently treated a particular way, we will inevitably buy into it, at some level. When we break through our biases, that dynamic disintegrates and we have the opportunity to reshape our self-perception, probably for the better.

Generalized cognitive biases, like the bandwagon effect or functional fixedness, are, for the most part, unavoidable. Self-imposed cognitive biases that impact our relationships and our relationship to the world can be deconstructed and even discarded by examining our assumptions and shifting our expectations.

Go ahead—peek behind your curtain and decide for yourself if what you believe about yourself and your world is real or simply a made up fact.

What are your thoughts about how self-created cognitive biases can be disruptive to your relationships? Leave a comment, or contact Michael to learn more. 

© 2016 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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