Biased Towards Unbiased Data

Our biases can change, but first we have to recognize that they exist.

Biased Towards Unbiased Data
“Meditation, Herman Hartwich” is marked with CC0 1.0.

Did you know that human beings are biased toward optimism? About 80% of the population, according to estimates from numerous studies, display an optimism bias (Sharot, 2011).

  • We assume we will enjoy our vacations.
  • We assume that we won’t get into car accidents.
  • We assume that we won’t get sick from an invisible disease.

Ironically, the very thing that has made portions of my life a living hell — my proclivity toward depression — makes me less likely to have an optimism bias!

Hashtag #Blessed, amiright?

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For this pandemic, and all those to come, we must build the resilience of an open heart and mind.

While “healthy humans expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with mild depression show no bias when predicting future events” (Sharot, 2011). In fact, my problem has been conditioning myself to expect things to be better and not worse than they are likely to turn out to be.

Optimism bias is not alone.

You, me, and everyone else experience various cognitive biases whenever we attempt to make decisions in the world (Davenport, 2020).

Unless we’re very careful to cultivate self-reflection, it becomes really hard to parse these biases from our moment-to-moment decisions.

Hard, but not impossible.

Studies have shown that “meditation can improve automatically activated, implicit attitudes toward stigmatized social groups” (Kang, et al., 2014, p. 1), although “successful meditation-based intervention requires the theoretically guided selection of the best-suited technique” (Hommel & Colzato, 2017, p. 1).

So, short of the long? We can get better at making decisions that overcome our biases.

The Next Pandemic or: how we can change habits in order to outlast and overwhelm the rich bastards…
In the face of overwhelming greed, it’s more important than ever to make a stand.

My own bias traditionally skewed in favor of that 20% of the population that experienced a “pessimism bias,” (as opposed to the 80% who think life will turn out better than reality) (Sharot, 2011). But, I’ve learned how to smooth out that instinctive response (and live a better life for it).

The problem is that our society does not provide training in overcoming biases.

If you’re depressed and anxious, it makes sense to go to a psychologist and say, “Hey, Doc, I can’t stop imagining bad things happening, and I’m starting to feel like I don’t care about anything anymore.”

But it doesn’t seem to make as much sense to go to a psychologist if you walk around thinking, “Gosh, I just know tomorrow is going to be an amazing day, there’s nothing that could ever bring me down!”

The problem, here, is that the skills that people who are mildly depressed develop to recover balance are the same skills everyone else needs as well.

We all need to learn how to better reflect on the source of our state of mind.

General Safety Measures We Need to Normalize
We’re all on the front lines of health and safety these days, so here’s what we can do.

When it comes to something like a pandemic, our biases are going to be wildly important in swaying our reactions. That means that we need to be extra careful to try to correct our experience in the opposite direction of our bias!

We can return to Seneca for an example of what this looks like. He wrote, “counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain [than that the] things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us … Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears” (TheStoicLife.Org — XIII — On Groundless Fears, n.d., Para. 12–13).

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Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider subscribing!


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