Understanding Our Biases

Calvin and Hobbes

“We see things not as they are but as we are.”

— Anais Nin

“When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”

— Dale Carnegie

“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”


“People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning: A people under the necessity of creating themselves must examine everything, and soak up learning the way the roots of a tree soak up water.”

— James Baldwin

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

— Isaac Newton

We like to think that we are rational. Yet we are often unaware of our cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way we think about information. They are distorted patterns in our perceptions and interpretations, influencing our beliefs, values, judgements, and decisions.

These biases occur as a result of our biological limitations. Our brains can only take in a fraction of information from the total amount of possible information in the universe. We wouldn’t be able to function if we had to process every millisecond of every detail in our environments. So our brains simplify what we perceive to be more efficient organs, but as a consequence of this neural simplification, we unconsciously make errors.

Our nervous systems make sense of the signals in our environments. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive. We select some information as relevant while rejecting other information. But what we perceive and recall, what we integrate into our systems, is never equal to all of reality.

We continuously make internal models of what we experience, mostly below the level of our conscious awareness. As we engage with our environments, our environments are represented inside of us. Our nervous systems are always changing with the conditions of the universe.

Our existence is intertwined with the cosmos. We are interdependent with other organisms on our planet. The chemical elements that we are made up of once came from the stars. Without the sea and air, without the sun and moon, without the flora and fauna, we would not exist.

Yet we cannot consciously choose to circulate our blood or beat our hearts or grow our teeth or fire off an exact number of neurotransmitters in our frontal lobes. We cannot smell like a hound or sense infrared like a pit viper or sprint like a cheetah. We cannot perceive the same realities as a forest of redwood trees, a colony of honey mushrooms, a pack of wolves, or a bacterium inside a zebra’s stomach.

Our realities are not only relative to our nervous systems, but to the tools that we use to extend our biological capacities, such as microscopes and telescopes, thermometers and computers. Through our nervous systems and tools, we can glimpse into infinity. We can communicate to each other about these “glimpses” with linear symbol-systems made of words and numbers.

Bucky Fuller, who was an inventor and architect and futurist, once wrote, “The universe consists of non-simultaneously apprehended events.”

We will never be able to fully comprehend all the events happening from the microscopic to the macroscopic, events from the past and present and future, events from hundreds of billions to trillions of galaxies. So many events are too unfathomable for our primate minds to consider.

The events that we can consider are not always considered in the same way. We interpret what we perceive through our biological, sociological, and psychological lenses. These lenses are interrelated rather than separate. They change over the span of our development. Because we all have such unique ways of interpretation, there is a lot of miscommunication between members of our species.

Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic and mystic and guerilla ontologist and author, said in his Maybe Logic documentary, “Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.”

1. We tend to favor information that conforms to our beliefs and values. We tend to be resistant to information that goes against our beliefs and values.

Sometimes we have trouble accepting evidence that challenges us, causes us to question our assumptions, and contradicts our sense of identity. We may even avoid what upsets our precious delusions, isolating ourselves in a bubble of ignorance.

When our beliefs harden into dogmatism, then we turn into one of the blind men touching the elephant, claiming the elephant is a tree or a snake or a fan, while never knowing its true nature.

The more that we attach ourselves to abstract notions of absolute truth, while being unable to respect the perspectives of others or correct the mistakes in our own views, the more closed-off we become. When we become rigid, and unable to adapt to change, we shut ourselves off from incoming information.

Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching, “A man living is yielding and receptive. / Dying, he is rigid and inflexible. ” (translated by R.L. Wing)

Robert Anton Wilson, in Prometheus Rising, made a similar point about when we are open (intelligent) or closed (stupid) to life: “Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies, etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission.”

2. We are usually conditioned to think of a hammer in a limited way. We may see it, for example, as a tool that drives in nails. While a hammer can drive in nails, it can have other possibilities that we aren’t aware of.

A hammer, for instance, can pull nails out of boards, shape metal, smash rocks, measure, chop, bang, and demolish the walls of a house. It can be made out of steel, bone, wood, plastic, and rubber.

At a much smaller scale, a hammer is a complex of interactions between subatomic particles. At a much larger scale, it is an insignificant point, a hint of light, in the vastness of outer space.

From inside the courtroom, a hammer (gavel) can act as a demonstration of justice. In political world history, when a hammer joins with a sickle, it shows the solidarity of the proletariat. It can represent blessings, protection, fertility, and power in the sagas of Norse mythology.

From a practical perspective, a veteran will have much more skill with a hammer than a novice. A sculptor will use it for different aesthetic reasons than a laborer. An infant may put a toy hammer in his mouth, tasting plastic for the first time, while a carpenter will raise a barn for her community.

In American folklore, John Henry once outpaced a steel-powered rock drilling machine. He died after winning his grueling race, a sledgehammer still clutched in his hand. While the tale of his endurance became a legend, an inspiration for the workers he strived with, he was still only a man.

John Henry succumbed not only to the stress of his heart, but to the future power of technology. Machinery would soon replace many of his fellow workers, removing them from their purpose and livelihood. Those who still had their employment would eventually resemble the same machines that they depended upon: cold and lifeless and efficient at production.

Through their dependency, their former skills would weaken. Their overreliance on machines would separate them from each other and from themselves. They had to live in a new age of greed.

Even though immigrants, ex-slaves, convicts, among many other poor workers, had struggled together to build America’s railroads, they were often alienated from the fruits of their labor. They earned low wages under deadly conditions. Then they were rejected when they weren’t as useful to their employers anymore.

John Henry was an ex-slave on the rails. In some versions of the tale, he built his hammer out of the chains that once restricted his freedom. His prowess with a hammer was not merely a gift, but a stance against his oppressors. He vowed through his grit to never let another man own him again. He may have been forced to work under deplorable conditions after the Civil War, which was common for many African Americans in the Reconstruction Era, but he used his power against the institutions that dehumanized him.

Whether he won or lost, John Henry was a hero. He stood tall, not only for himself, but for all the underdogs of humanity. He spoke for those who didn’t have a voice. He sweated until his death for workers who were persecuted, exploited, and displaced under the brutal pace of “progress.” His hammer was not just an instrument of his worth. It symbolized an integral part of American identity.

The hammer was groundbreaking when it was first invented. It has since evolved in design and purpose, meaning and material. The hammer is simple, yet complex. It says more about our human nature than we realize.

Throughout our lives, we often cling to what we are used to while ignoring what could be. We may think that a problem has only one solution, an individual has only one identity, or a thing can only be used in one way, while we don’t look for more possibilities than we are comfortable with.

Our old knowledge can prevent us from knowing more. We may even refuse to acknowledge a given reality because we are so fixated on what we think we know. How can we adapt to what is new, or correct our prejudices, or imagine the unimaginable, when we are trapped by our narrow conceptions?

We must empty our teacup if we are to learn. We cannot let our teacup overflow with opinions and conceit. Sometimes we need to unlearn what we once believed, letting go of our attachments to certain stories. Everything can be our teacher.

When we view ourselves as beginners, we can ask questions that aren’t regularly asked. We can approach familiarities as if they were new again. When we no longer drag around our prejudices and outdated notions about how life should be, we can open ourselves to more possibilities.

3. We often overestimate our knowledge, expertise, and competence. Yet we are limited not just by what we know, but what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know.

Sometimes we even think that everything we think is all there is to think. Then we look back at how foolish we were, at how we have changed over the years, after having been beaten down by the wisdom of hard experience.

Our simplified understanding of a complex subject does not mean that the subject is simple. Maybe there are other views that we have not examined or comprehended. There may be subtleties to fields that only specialists can understand after decades of education and diligent practice. We may never have all the answers to the questions we seek.

When we aren’t humble enough to accept our limitations, when we refuse to ask for help, when we don’t reflect anymore on the mysterious and unknown, we can become proud of our illusion of knowledge. Our ignorance can make us feel that we are superior, when in actuality, we don’t have the humility, or the honesty, to seek the truth of our conditions.

4. Just because somebody that we know, trust, admire, honor, respect, and so on, believes in a particular idea, that doesn’t mean that idea is necessarily true. Even if most of the population believes in X or Y, including sixty-one biologists, our grandmother, the cranky neighbor down the street, the leader of Norway, the quarterback on our favorite football team, and our elementary school teacher, that still does not make X or Y, along with any other answer we can imagine, necessarily true either. On the other hand, no matter how much we may distrust a particular individual, even a fool or a liar can speak the truth.

Our ignorance about the truth of an idea, and our failure to think of a valid answer, does not mean that we should accept any alternative answer out there. Our lack of knowledge means only that: a lack of knowledge.

As far as we know, we don’t know. And when we don’t know, we can try to find out what the most accurate answers are, but we should not believe in ideas that are not supported by a sufficient amount of evidence. We can suspend our judgment while remaining open to future possibilities instead.

Even when we do accept certain ideas as valid, we should accept them tentatively, because what we believe today may be wrong tomorrow. It is better to have a degree of certainty with room enough to doubt that certainty.

5. We are often persuaded by compelling personal stories. Some people are eloquent speakers, born with the gift of the gab. What they tell us may even be partially true. At the same time, we have to consider whether their stories are exaggerated, made up, delusional, prejudiced, misinformed, or physically impossible.

Can their stories be tested? Can they be verified by credible witnesses? When they speak, are they being logically sound? Do they talk about events that are highly improbable or probable?

Sometimes people use premises that make logical sense, but then they jump to grand conclusions based on those premises.

Sometimes they assume too much when they argue for their points because they want their conclusions to be true. Then they selectively look for any information that fits with their conclusions. They want to persuade us but they may not have logically arrived at their conclusions beforehand.

They may even take their assumptions as givens and then proceed further on in their argument. Despite their ready acceptance of their own points, some of us wouldn’t agree with their assumptions.

6. We tend to more easily feel compassion for people who are closer to us than people who are not as close to us.

When the number of those who are suffering increases to be on a massive scale, when human beings are judged more as abstractions than as meaningful existences, our compassion fades.

We must not be indifferent. We have to listen to the stories of those who need our help, who are traumatized, who have gone through a crisis, so we can care for them, so we can be there for them, so we can see our humanity in them.

It is far too easy for us to ignore others when they are presented as numbers. We have to learn their perspectives.

We’re interconnected, dependent on each other in this world, while dependent on this world to be. We all want to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to belong to harmonious communities, not ones divided out of war and hatred and fear.

As Martin Luther King Jr., minister and civil rights leader, wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

7. We are more likely to act in a similar manner to how those around us act. We may feel more comfortable conforming to social pressures rather than critically thinking for ourselves, especially when we are made to feel lost, alienated, and persecuted.

We normally take cues on how to behave based on the behavior of those around us, but when we do so, we may neglect our intuition, reason, and ethical judgment, sacrificing who we are for the values of the herd.

What we do matters to those around us. What others do matters to us. We are highly influential in our interactions with each other. Our actions have significant consequences for other beings. Our social environments profoundly affect not only how we feel, but how we treat the people around us, and how they treat us.

8. We often underestimate the severity of threats and warnings. We act as if dangerous events could never impact our personal lives. Natural disasters, market crashes, motor vehicle accidents, contagious viruses, and so on, are often ignored, disbelieved, minimized, and underestimated.

We feel uncomfortable when certain ideas contradict our values, beliefs, and attitudes, even when those ideas are valid, even when those ideas can better prepare us to deal with future crises. We are resistant toward information that challenges our sense of normalcy and comfort and security. Rather than plan for catastrophes, we downplay them. Rather than confronting potential emergencies, we deliberately ignore them.

9. We have a tendency to overestimate our abilities, talents, and intelligence. We may even believe that we have more control over a situation than we really do. When we feel superior and overconfident, we aren’t that accurate in our assessment of ourselves.

Sometimes those of us who understand the least about a given subject are the most confident. We may fail to recognize our incompetence because we are not aware enough of ourselves or of the given subject. We are ignorant of our ignorance, believing that we are wise. Our hubris distorts what we see as reality.

The more we learn, the more we come to realize how much we don’t know. We will never know all there is to know, but as our knowledge expands, we can become more aware of who we are and where we are going. We can reflect back on the patterns of our history.

When we are conscious of our shared humanity, of our ignorance, of our potential for growth, we can humbly explore the universe. We can invite mystery into our lives. We can become curious again.

10. We tend to believe in ideas that we can more easily remember than other ideas. We accept ideas that we hear more frequently and that emotionally impact us.

Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.

Media outlets repeat sensationalist stories every day while censoring more critical narratives from being presented to the public. They manipulate their viewers into feeling sympathetic, outraged, fearful, disgusted, and so on, while not offending their advertisers and corporate owners.

Politicians know how to appeal to their voters, delivering passionate rhetoric on some issues, while never giving straight answers on more pressing concerns. They show off a carefully cultivated persona — smiling, shaking hands, dressing in expensive clothing, kissing babies, attending lucrative events, pretending to care about the same issues as their base — while covertly serving their own class interests.

When we don’t critically think about the quality of information that we consume, we will be seduced by misinformation. We will gobble up emotionally engaging stories. Propaganda will overtake our memories.

Available information is not always credible information.

When we aren’t aware of our biases, we can easily be fooled. Sometimes even when we are aware, we can be fooled. While our ignorance works against us, it can be profitable for those who wish to take advantage of us.

Rather than only believing what makes us feel good, or what other groups believe, we have to examine the information we receive. We have to reflect on our moral choices, on our values, seeking to know more than what we have been indoctrinated to think.

When we refuse to accept what is true for a long enough time, we will eventually settle into the false comfort of delusion. Through our self-deception, we may hurt ourselves or those around us. We have to critically think about our lives so that we don’t make poor choices with even worse consequences.

We can open our minds to future possibilities, to hidden meanings. We can help those who are suffering, who are ignored, hearing their stories, tending to them as best as we can.

The more that we study our lives, the more that we question what we are taught, the more that we are ready to abandon our old perspectives, the more we can mature as human beings.


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