Bias number 16 is known as the belief bias. This is a cognitive bias that affects the way people reason and is an extremely common bias. Because of this, it is an important one to consider.
The way it works in reasoning is this. When confronted with opposing beliefs, people will align with the one that most closely resembles their own values system, beliefs and prior knowledge and will reject other belief systems as being false as a result.
This becomes an issue when evidence demonstrates truth that contradicts a belief system. Scientists (and the articles in this series) have repeatedly shown that human beings are governed primarily by the unconscious mind, despite their belief (pardon the pun) in the contrary.
We would rather stick with what we already know, using mental shortcuts and relying on unreliable functions of thought like intuition and supposition, over confronting and analysing facts. Our unconscious and often irrational neurology wants us to make quick decisions while our conscious, logical neurology seeks to investigate, analyse and draw conclusions based on evidence.
While our brain may want to encourage us to make quick decisions, is this always the best way to go about the decision-making process?
In studies, scientists have shown that three key factors play into the effect of the bias: time, emotional nature of content and instructions. In the case of time, people under time pressure were more likely to rely on beliefs over evidence to make decisions. When given an argument that provokes a negative response, people were more likely to analyse a conclusion rather than rely on beliefs. In the case of instruction, people given clear instructions were more likely to follow them and less likely to rely on beliefs to interpret them.
What are you noticing as you read the results of the study?
As a person who trains people to be powerful in relationships, the thing that jumps off the page for me is just how important it is for leaders to understand how the belief bias is impacting both themselves and the people who work for them.
I regularly see leaders creating artificial deadlines for work under false pretences, unnecessarily subjecting their people to pressure that sets them up to make irrational, illogical decisions. When people are stressed, they generally tend towards doing what’s necessary to relieve the stress, even if that means producing substandard work in order to meet the boss’s deadline.
What’s the rush? I understand and agree with the idea of focus on a target. This is not what I’m talking about here, and those of you who are guilty of this know exactly what I mean. It's more of an exercise in the exertion of your authority than it is a strategy to motivate people to take action.
The second issue involves emotional material. When strong, negative emotions are involved, the monkey in our brain has been triggered and our analytical brain goes into overdrive, the goal of which is to resolve the threat. Sometimes, triggering the monkey is unavoidable, and actually necessary. However, all too often our survival instinct kicks in when a conclusion is poorly considered and delivered.
It is important to remember that analysis driven by fear produces a different result to analysis that is driven by neutrality or positive emotions. Leaders aware of this can look at how they present messages, taking into consideration the spectrum of beliefs that may be triggered by the message.
Where this process begins is by recognising your own beliefs that are driving the content of the message. Mindful self-awareness as a leader can mitigate against a whole host of potential and unnecessary emotional workplace flare-ups, especially when “negative” news is being delivered.
Finally, clear instructions reduce the incidence of people falling back on beliefs to interpret instructions that are either woolly or missing. This, in my experience, is a big and persistent failing of leadership. As a leader, it is your job to direct people, and those who are under your guidance expect it of you. They have granted you the authority. It’s up to you to exercise it.
The truth is, leaders are people, too. They share the fears — and beliefs — that you do. The leaders who fail to do the work of revealing, analysing and challenging their own belief systems get caught out over and over again, and they damage their reputation as a leader as a result.
So, are you at the mercy of your beliefs? Well, the short answer is yes, unless you acknowledge that you’ve got them, do the work to uncover them and assess whether or not your beliefs have merit in a given situation.
Here’s the thing. Belief and truth are two very different things. You may believe that you’re going to win the lottery next week. You may believe that God does or does not exist. You may believe that you are a good leader.
It doesn’t necessarily make it so.
If there’s one belief I’d recommend you believe in, it’s this. What you believe is merely a drop in the ocean of truth. The wisest of people know that, in truth, they know nothing. This leaves them wide open to discover Truth with a capital T.
Some call this type of wisdom the beginner’s mind. I call it the beginning of brilliance.