Who are you going to believe, me or your lying brain?

Hi I’m John, and I’m biased.

I am not the only one. You are too.

In fact all human beings are born with a set of biases and mental shortcuts that help us survive and deal with the world around us.

In the past such biases were vital to survival.

We didn’t need to worry about being fair and inclusive when we were living in caves; we were more concerned with finding the next woolly mammoth and avoiding being eaten by lions.

Issues such as creating a diverse community were way down our priority list.

Back then, if we automatically feared the unknown person from the outsider tribe down the road, at worst we’d lose out on what could have been a beautiful friendship. If we got it wrong the other way around, including someone dangerous in our group, then we’d have likely lost our heads – literally – and evolution favours people with heads … ergo survivors are more likely to be suspicious of strangers.

The issue of bias goes beyond how we jump to conclusions about other people.

It includes how we approach all kinds of incoming information, especially that which contradicts what we think is true – again, evolving on the savanna didn’t equip us to distinguish the good data wheat from the misleading chaff; instead it left us transfixed by shiny objects and distracted by movement.

This was important functionality back in the day when it was vital to spot unexpected movement in the bushes – but times have changed, and being distracted by a TV screen when someone’s trying to talk to you is now more a bug than a feature, reducing our ability to perform, not enhancing it.

Now that we live and work in a multicultural global environment we need to broaden our vision beyond our own narrow bias-filled perspectives if we want to make good decisions.

This isn’t easy.

In fact a lot of biases will persist even if you are aware of them and intellectually believe they are wrong … but we can only manage what we’re aware of, and whilst we cannot rid ourselves of these hardwired shortcuts, we can change our behaviour to move beyond them.

I discussed all this (and more) in a recent Trainer Tools podcast with Paul Tizzard, and talked through a workshop I have delivered on the subject – including my favourite ever illusion:

In the picture above, squares A and B are actually the same colour.

Mind blown?

Probably not, probably you don’t believe me or assume you’ve misunderstood me.

You haven’t.

But don’t worry, no one ever believes me.

The thing is that our brains shortcut this level of detail and show square A to be darker than square B because the pattern of the chessboard is enough for the brain to fill in the blanks, it ignores the detail of the exact shades of grey.

Still don’t believe me?

To paraphrase the great Groucho Marx: who are you going to believe, me, or your lying brain?

I say brain because this is not an optical illusion, your eyes are not fooled, they are sending the correct details on the wavelength of the light hitting your retina directly to your brain, it is then your brain that is fooling you by ignoring that detail and whacking up a picture of a chessboard from its collection of stock images.

Still don’t believe me?

This often happens, people will come up with all sorts of explanations as to why I am wrong, that it’s all a trick, and all sorts of logical explanations as to why square A really is darker than square B – proving how persistent the bias is, forcing them to twist the world to make sense of the data whilst avoiding challenging their subjective experience.

If I insist that there is no trick from my end (the trick is at your end, sorry), and it is exactly as I have explained, they are left to conclude on of these three conclusions:

(a) I am right
(b) I am lying
(c) I am incompetent 

So which is it?

Just how far are you willing to go to cling to the biased information in your head?

You can prove it by breaking the pattern – I used Snipping Tool to snip out each square individually – see below:

Still don’t believe me?

First, snip out the squares yourself so you have full control over the chain of evidence, then apologise in the comments below.

Second, reflect on how you insist your biased perspective is the true one despite evidence to the contrary – what else might you be clinging to despite other potential explanations?

Interesting aside, the illusion persists even when you know it’s not true – showing in a very visual way just how strong our ingrained biases are, even when we’re aware of them.

Unconscious bias resources

Link to the unconscious bias discussion on the Trainer Tools podcast: If you’re not aware of your unconscious bias, you’re holding yourself back

“You don’t know what you don’t know: How our unconscious minds undermine the workplace” – from Google’s blog, and includes the 3-minute video summing up unconscious bias.

Google Talk on unconscious bias (on YouTube).

Implicit Association Test (Harvard University). More recent research has shown this to do more harm than good as it seems to be more accurately measuring responses to in group/out group membership with inconsistent correlation to racial prejudice – so use wisely (or don’t use at all!) (reference to the criticism of the tool)

“You’re more biased than you think” article on FastCompany website.

“Rise Of The Bias Busters: How Unconscious Bias Became Silicon Valley’s Newest Target” article on Forbes website.

“The downside of diversity” article on Boston Globe website.

Wikipedia page on Heuristics and Bias (discusses Kahneman and Tversky’s heuristics)

Confronting Prejudice: How to Protect Yourself and Others resource from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the Online Master of Psychology program from Pepperdine University

Scott E Page talk on Leveraging Diversity (YouTube).

Stop focussing on content, focus on problems! Trainer Tools

In this podcast John Tomlinson talks to David James of 360Learning about how we need to align out digital learning strategies to fixing real problems quickly, rather than building up cumbersome libraries of generic content. It's more fun that I just made it sound, I promise.   David James is Chief Learning Officer at 360Learning (formerly at Looop) and has been a People Development professional for more than 20 years, most notably as Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company across Europe, the Middle East & Africa.   David is host of The Learning & Development Podcast, a prominent writer and a conference speaker on topics around modern and digital L&D.   Twitter: @DavidInLearning LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidjameslinkedin/ Website: https://www.davidinlearning.com  
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