6.7 Bias in Thought Processes

When we look at something or a situation, we typically don’t take in, and consciously process all the available information in front of us. We just don’t have time. What we can’t handle in the moment gets buried in our subconscious. Take a look around the room. Pay attention to everything blue. How many blue objects are there? Did you realize how many there are?

In order for our brains to process what we need to make quick decisions, all of us have a filtering mechanism that’s shaped by our life experiences and expectations. Filters allow us to process information, interactions, and situations in an expeditious manner. One of the problems though, is that filters often take on the same shape and dimension of funnels (5.7). Filters are helpful to keep things moving and streamlined, but they also “over” value, restrict or discard important information. This restriction of information (also known as heuristics) leads to the development of biased thinking patterns that affect our ability to make “informed” rather than “emotional” decisions. Psychology and other fields have identified hundreds of biases. These have been chosen for their applicability to the context of our work.

Negativity bias is the tendency to pay more attention to bad things rather than appreciate what’s good. This bias, wired deeply into our DNA and inherited wisdom, served our ancestral cave dwellers well with respect to learning which dangers to avoid. That said, it’s no longer helpful as our primary filter for information. Negativity bias means we’re more likely to focus on our mistakes or shortcomings rather than what we do well. Ugh! Besides feelings of inadequacy or the dreaded and depressing “less than” now we have to wrestle with our subconscious desire to upregulate our mood.

Bandwagon bias or effect is the tendency to go along with the opinions, behaviors, or preferences of others in our crowd. This tendency is a significant challenge when we change our eating behavior and preferences. “You can have just a bite…it’s not like we get together very often…”

Hindsight bias is the tendency to judge past behavior as being predictable. This is when we judge something we did in the past as negative, when in fact, at that time we didn’t have the information at that time to make a different decision.

Current moment bias is our tendency to go with the choice of what seems to be good now rather than taking into account any long-term ramifications. Having two cookies now might seem okay in the moment, but not when we consider the potential for a binge episode or long-term relapse on sweet food products.

Forecasting Bias is our tendency to think that because we’ve enjoyed something in the past, or fantasized forever about an upcoming trip to an exotic location, that we’ll enjoy whatever it is as much, or even more than the last time. We tend to overestimate both the intensity, and how long we’ll experience feelings of “pleasure” or “reward.”

Impact Bias is our tendency to think that when we’ve accomplished something significant like graduating school, or getting our dream job, that we’ll be “happy” forever. We tend to “over” and “under” estimate the impact of important events. Following these accomplishments, we have a tendency to return to our previous “learned” levels of emotional functioning.

Irrational escalation (also known as sunk-cost effect) occurs when we justify continuing to do something we invested in even when new information would suggest it’s a poor choice. “But I paid for that 100 lb. box of chocolate with hard work! I can’t throw it away!”

Restraint bias is our tendency to overestimate our ability to show restraint when faced with temptation. We can’t eat just one! This is why almost all weight loss programs suggest eating a healthy meal or snack before attending social functions.

Observational selection bias happens when we suddenly begin to notice or pay attention to things that we didn’t pay attention to before. We wrongly assume the frequency has increased when actually we’re simply more aware of a particular state or message. If someone talks about a particular food or restaurant that interests us, we become sensitive to cues about that stimulus.

Confirmation bias is the automatic and seemingly subconscious preference we have for information or people who support a pre-existing view we may have of ourselves or a situation. We may even gravitate toward those who agree with us despite the potential for harm.

Status quo bias or conditioned place preference is our preference for things that are familiar and become a default. This may be going to a particular restaurant, movie theater, or sports arena because we know what to expect. Many times those expectations are subconsciously tied to the availability of food, the type of food served, and the social “norm” or expectation of eating or drinking in that environment. Some of us may have to explore new venues to break away from unhealthy eating habits.

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