On a plane, if the person beside you orders a drink, you become more likely to order a drink. Choosing to have a beverage feels like it’s completely your decision, right? But in reality, your neighbour’s action has exerted an influence on you. You’ve just become 30% more likely to order a drink.
When we make a decision, it feels conscious and logical. We’re used to considering options, weighing pros and cons, and reaching a conclusion. But the truth is that we are not as in control of our decisions as we think.
We’re prey to biases all the time. They skew our decision-making and support prejudice. It’s why someone can be a gender equality champion in the workplace and still rate a CV as less qualified if it has a female name on it rather than a male name. Just like our minds are tricked by optical illusions, there are cognitive illusions that also trick us. Here are three.
Confirmation bias is where we have pre-existing beliefs and our brain scans for the evidence that supports our stance. We listen only to the information that confirms our preconceptions, throwing away anything that contradicts or adds complexity.
Anchoring bias causes us to place too much weight on the very first piece of information we’re given. For example, in salary negotiations, the first number named becomes the anchor for the whole conversation. It’s considered more important than any other offer.
Bandwagon effect is where the probability of a person believing something increases with the number of people who hold that belief, irrespective of how illogical or prejudged the belief may be.
Mindfulness can help to unhook us from automatic thinking and shine a light on our biases. Here are three ways that it helps.
1) Widens our context
We easily attribute someone’s action (e.g. John slams down his paperwork) to an intrinsic quality (John’s such an angry guy) rather than recognise it as a one-off circumstance (John’s had a really frustrating morning). This is called fundamental attribution error. Practicing mindfulness helps us to expand our perspective. We widen outwards from our judgement and explore what else may be true.
2) Corrects our negativity bias
As humans, we evolved to pay more attention to a challenge or threat than to something neutral or positive. We can remember a friend’s harsh words in 4k Ultra HD but may need to scan through our memory to find a time when they said something kind or supportive. This negativity bias is one of our primary delusions. We believe that the world is less friendly and more problematic than our actual experience. Softening this distorted perception reframes reality as we know it.
3) Connects us
Many of these biases isolate us from others or from groups we perceive as different. This happens without any effort or awareness on our part. Mindfulness counters this by teaching us to be aware of and question our unconscious judgements while cultivating a sense of connection and empathy. It slows down our automatic judgements. Research has found that mindfulness practice reduced implicit race and age bias, diminishing our unquestioned assessments of people as inferior, threatening or less worthy. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness”.
To sum up
You don’t need to believe everything you think. Your thoughts are real, but they’re not necessarily true. Mindfulness practice offers us a less reactive perspective and with it come wiser, more thoughtful decisions.
Orlaith consults on corporate mindfulness solutions, working to create resilient communities that can innovate, problem-solve with clarity and work positively with change. You can find out more here.