The Biased Brain’s Search for Consistency

We are all biased. We can’t help it. The way we sense, perceive and interpret everything is biased. It is biased by our ability to sense, understand and process, as well as our experiences, which have taught us the predictability and safety of familiarity and simplicity, as well as the risk and discomfort of unfamiliarity and complexity. Our need for orientation and a sense of control sees us reduce, simplify and classify, however incompletely or inaccurately – a basis for judgement, intolerance and modern forms of tribalism (racism, religious fundamentalism, politics, even sporting team and brand allegiance). This need to simplify complexity and prefer familiarity sees us stereotype, generalise, accept, reject, discount, amplify and assume irrespective of objective truths.

We also build identities around our beliefs and biases – this is a normal part of being a complex tribal species in a dangerous world – we need to simplify and make quick choices about who and what can hurt us, irrespective of their objective accuracy, and to feel we know how we fit in. This is us – and, with an appetite for awareness, curiosity, positivity and tolerance, bias need not be a problem.

The challenge is our brain’s bias toward being biased, especially when we are trying to be objective. Consider the two main processes identified by Seymour Epstein – the powerful and fast emotional-intuitive sensing, opinion-forming and reacting of what might be called the ancient limbic region (not entirely accurate, but a useful distinction in any case), and the weak and slow rational-cognitive understanding, sense-making and responding of the (mostly) modern prefrontal cortex.

The idea espoused in resilience, emotional management and objective fact-finding is that if we put our fast-reactive brain on hold, we can become objective in seeking objective unbiased truths. This presumes two things, both of which are flawed:

  • That enough knowledge is discoverable, and known to be relevant and discoverable, for a truly rational and objective judgement, decision and response to be made.
  • That our brains will comfortably put aside strong feelings, beliefs and intuition to commit to an objectively rational response.

Where we experience an inconsistency between our intuitions (gut-feelings, beliefs, weltanschauung) and the facts or opinions of others, we feel unsettled or distressed, a state we attempt to resolve through defence – unfortunately often through FFF response mechanisms. This sees us discount the issue or ignore it (flight) or argue against it (fight). Described as various consistency theories, ideas around the origins and processes of inner conflict, sense-making and ambiguity, and the behavioural responses they are associated with, are common targets for theorising. Epstein’s simple division of parallel (fast) emotional/intuitive versus (slow) cognitive/rational processing systems, in combination with the omnipresent drive for basic need satisfaction, is perhaps the most useful approach to a practical understanding of the source of inconsistency.

In attempting to resolve this inner turmoil, the result of a stronger emotional/intuitive brain system is typically confirmation bias, where instead of seeking the objectively accurate and balanced information we think we are looking for, we actually seek support for our belief, stated position (linked to identity), hope or intuition. “Hard-wiring” means that it is more comfortable to find facts that fit our beliefs and basic needs than to change our beliefs or to tolerate a risk to basic needs. The lack of tolerance for challenges to belief systems such as religion, politics, fairness, cruelty and personal values illustrates how our biases are so vehemently defended internally and externally. It might be speculated that the distress of inconsistency is closely linked to the basic need for orientation which, amongst other things, seeks predictability, stability, familiarity, sense-making and reassurance of reality.

A simple example of this in action is in high school debates, where one team is charged with promoting and defending one position, and the other team has to promote and defend its opposite. Typically, each team becomes quite convinced that their side is the more correct, even though they didn’t get to choose the topic or the side they took, simply because their focus is on finding evidence to support that position and their identity and social position as “correct”, “smart” or a “winner” – or certainly not the opposites.

This is intrinsic confirmation bias, and it is essential for our well-being that we have it. Imagine being fully open to every opinion and idea about work, relationships, morals, politics, religion and social justice without being committed to any – life would be overly complex and confusing, without certainty, direction or purpose. Imagine ignoring gut feelings and beliefs every time in favour of “objective” truths (if they exist) – confidence, orientation, control and self-esteem would be decimated – our consistency-seeking brain systems simply can’t allow this.

From here

So what to do? Perhaps the best we can do is to accept that we have our biases, attempt to recognise when they are helpful for us and those around us, and when they aren’t. And then to accept that others have similar biases that prevent them, despite goodwill, from seeing the world and reality the way we do. Their beliefs, truths and interpretations are real for them until the moment THEY decide otherwise, and the more we argue with them, the more they will dig in and defend themselves. Don’t tell people they are wrong – rather if you can, allow them to see other, alternative, but equally valid possibilities and stories – let them co-create and explore them with you if you can.

In seeking to increase personal resilience and emotional/behavioural management we should also recognise that our biases always influence us, especially under stress where the need for simplification is heightened. It can also be helpful to acknowledge that while out intuitions and biases are trying to help and guide us, there are times that they hold us back, and that at times we should feel OK about going with sound evidence even if it doesn’t “feel” right. The self-knowledge, tolerance and humility that these understandings bring are integral to NEURO-M practices in managing self, others and relationships, as well as for mindfulness and well-being.