Beware of Bias

Posted: December 10, 2017 in Readiness & Strategy
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by Richard Martin

“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
Benjamin Franklin

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman

This week I’d like to discuss the topic of cognitive biases. These are the ways in which our minds trick us, or can be tricked, into thinking in a way that is not fully conducive to realism and success in our undertakings. If there is anything that can undermine readiness, it’s that.

The content in the diagram above was created by Buster Benson of the Better Humans website. He took the ad hoc list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia–incidentally, probably the most complete such archive–and organized them according by similarity. The list was then organized graphically by John Mahoogian.

The important point is that the cognitive biases can be classified or collapsed into four main categories:

  • Too much information
  • What to remember
  • Not enough meaning
  • Need to act fast

Let’s consider how these can impact our readiness for change, uncertainty, risk, and opportunity.

  1. Too much information: The world is a kaleidoscope. How can we know what is important and what isn’t? The only way to make sense of the data and information coming at us constantly from all directions is in light of our goals and plans. I find the concepts of threat and opportunity are most useful, but how do we distinguish them? An opportunity is anything that can advance us toward our goals or enhance the effectiveness of our actions. A threat is anything that can block attainment of our goals or hinder our actions toward them.
  2. What to remember:There is too much information to remember it all. That’s why we need to classify it according to whether it is an opportunity or a threat. However, even this can get tedious. We can become overly focused on the ways (options, plans) and means (inputs, resources) and forget what it was we were trying to achieve in the first place. This is why military commanders and planners follow the dictum to always get back to the mission. What are we trying to achieve? What are our mission and end state? What are the commander’s intent and concept of operations? It is only by asking ourselves these questions regularly throughout our planning and action that we can stay on target, filter out the irrelevant, and put our resources and energy on what will get us the biggest effects for our efforts.
  3. Not enough meaning:Most of what happens and surrounds us is meaningless. In other words, stuff happens; it may be random or not, relevant or not, but we’re just not sure. So what do our brains do? They invent stuff. We see causes and correlations where there are none. We impute intentions to others and to impersonal forces where there are none. We project our thoughts, feelings, and intentions onto others, or we anthropomorphize collective phenomena, such as the “market,” the “competition,” the “environment,” the “government,” “immigrants,” etc., etc. Needless to say, we can get wrapped around the axle for nothing. The only remedy that works against this is to test our assumptions and hypotheses by putting ourselves in the others’ shoes and trying to imagine what they are thinking, feeling, intending, planning from their perspective, not ours.
  4. Need to act fast:This is common in fast-changing, risky or dangerous situations, such as emergencies and crises. My definition of a crisis is any time we’ve lost control of the situation and events are moving faster than you can assimilate and react to them. An emergency is a crisis where the risks to life and limb are imminent or actual. The best way to accommodate the need to act fast is through preparation and planning prior to a crisis occurring. To do this requires anticipation, and for that you need to consider what could go wrong–or right–beforehand. By extension, you need to set in place the tools and procedures to meet that need when the time comes.

There are no surefire ways of eliminating cognitive biases. They are inherent to human nature and the fact that we are constantly trying to assess what is really the case “out there,” in the world, or “in here,” in our minds and bodies. We are also trying to find the optimal means and ways available to achieve our ends. Furthermore, we are constantly assessing–or should be–our ends and values, to ensure that they are still relevant and congruent with our higher goals. This takes constant vigilance, self-cultivation, and self-discipline to carry out, along with a good dose of humility and openness to change, ideas, and criticism.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

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