A while back I planned to write series on barriers to learning, but I was stopped in my tracks when I tried to write about what I perceive as one of the most insidious barriers: cognitive bias. I was heartened, therefore to find a study recently that suggests hope for combatting cognitive bias.
In a nutshell, cognitive bias is the tendency for what we have experienced in the past and “know” – whether consciously or consciously – to influence how we process new information. Each of us lives our lives day in and day out with a wide range of assumptions, preferences, misconceptions and other mental leanings that strongly influence – and, in many cases, essentially pre-determine – how open we really are to learning. These biases take many, many forms, but a handful of particularly common ones include:
Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information or memories in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. In other words, when we think our political party is best, or our beliefs about the perils of Facebook are correct, we gravitate toward people and information that share our thinking.
Semmelweis reflex – the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm. This goes hand in hand with the confirmation bias. Not only do we tend to accept too readily any information that confirms our thinking, we also tend to reject anything that doesn’t. It’s a wonder we ever learn anything!
Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Sadly, we are all sheep most of the time.
Framing effect – drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how or by whom that information is presented. Just think of the difference between how Fox News might present something vs. National Public Radio.
Planning fallacy – the tendency to underestimate task-completion times. I’m sure I don’t have to explain this one to anyone who has ever managed a complex project of any sort.
The list goes on – and on. To explore other biases, see the full list of cognitive biases at Wikipedia from which I drew the examples above.
As I noted above, I became stymied quickly when I started to write about cognitive bias as a barrier to learning. The problem was that I wanted to be able to suggest ways to overcome cognitive bias, but I was not able to find methods that were supported by scientific evidence.
Basic awareness of the concept, it seems, is of limited help. Even Daniel Kahneman, the nobel-prize winning psychologist who, along with his partner Amos Tversky, introduced the term and has spent years studying cognitive bias, laments that he is still highly subject to it. In Thinking Fast and Slow (highly recommended) he writes that his “intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues.”
Increased intelligence also does not necessarily correlate to lower cognitive bias. Indeed, at least one research study suggests that a higher level of cognitive ability may actually increase susceptibility to cognitive bias – a sort of “smarty pants” effect, you could say.
So, what does that leave?
I know, I know: mindfulness meditation is right up there with yogurt and yoga when it comes to trendiness these days. It seems like there is no ill it can’t calmly and patiently wrestle to the ground. But, as it turns out, a research suggests that mindfulness meditation may indeed be a useful tool in addressing cognitive bias.
A study led by Andrew Hafenbrack of INSEAD in Singapore examined the impact of mindfulness meditation on the “sunk cost” bias. You almost certainly know this bias well. It is our tendency to stick with something – e.g., an investment, a relationship – even when it is clearly not serving us well. We place too much value on what we have put into it in the past – our “sunk costs” – and are therefore unwilling to cut our losses even when we would be much better served by moving on.
Hafenbrack and his team reasoned that our wandering minds lead us to dwell too much on the past and the future, thus providing fuel for the sunk cost bias. By focusing more on the present, they hypothesized, we allow the bias much less of a foothold.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers first conducted a study to gauge the pre-existing level of mindfulness of the research participants (87 men and 91 women) and whether it correlated to greater or lesser susceptibility to the sunk cost bias. It turned out that the more mindful participants were also less pre-disposed to the sunk cost bias.
The team then conducted a series of three experiments with smaller groups from the larger pool of participants. Some groups were encouraged to let their minds wander before being asked to make a series of decisions that were designed to evoke the sunk cost bias. Others were guided through a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session prior to being presented with the same decisions. Again, the mindful group was significantly less likely to be influenced by the sunk cost bias.
It is important – and encouraging – to note that it took only a brief dose of mindfulness to reduce the level of bias. Certainly 15 minutes of mindfulness is something any of us could engage in before making important decisions or launching into learning experiences that might benefit from as open a mind as possible. And it is possible, of course, that longer, more intensive mindfulness practice could have an even greater impact.
These results leave me optimistic, but also mindful of the fact that optimism itself can be a bias. It seems unlikely that we can ever completely eliminate cognitive biases on a large scale, but reducing it by even a small amount would be a significant step forward. That step, of course, begins with each one of us individually. Personally, I have begun to make mindfulness meditation a part of my daily habits and I intend to write more about it here.
What about you? How do mindfulness and mindfulness meditation factor into your lifelong learning? And do you feel they have helped reduce your own susceptibility to biases? Please comment and share your thoughts and experiences.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.