Every Hero Has a Weakness: Recognizing Cognitive Bias

You don’t need the power of flight or X-ray vision to be a hero, nor do you need to rescue kittens from trees or pull children from burning buildings. While the world certainly needs heroes to keep us safe, it also needs heroes who keep us connected. Compassion, empathy, and humankindness are all superpowers. However, if kindness is your superpower, cognitive bias is your kryptonite and can limit your opportunities to have hero moments.

The Natural Inclination to Stereotype

Cognitive bias is the tendency to make snap judgments about people or situations that are shaped only by your own experiences and perspectives. Your brain is hardwired to make assumptions every day, about almost everything. Every new person you meet and every current event that becomes a hot topic — you already know how you’ll feel about it, and you aren’t necessarily challenged to think from a different perspective or consider the complexities of that person or situation.

This can be a good thing. By narrowing your field of view, cognitive biases enable you to make quick decisions that are sometimes necessary for survival or success. It also helps the pattern-craving human brain make meaning out of the world by putting people and ideas into boxes. The downside: It’s hard to connect with people who are different from you.

Cognitive biases are inevitable, but by becoming mindful of them, you can put them aside and encourage amazing moments of connection, opportunity, selflessness, and personal growth.

The Problem With Cognitive Biases

It’s easy to be kind to people you know and to empathize with those who look or think like you. However, when you don’t have all the information about someone, your brain automatically fills in the blanks with generalizations and stereotypes, making it hard for you to connect with that person.

Consider walking by a homeless man asking for change. You might assume he deserves to be in that situation — that he’s lazy or has done something wrong. The same homeless person might look at your clothes and think, “That person doesn’t care about me. She has everything she’ll ever need and will probably ignore me like everyone else.” As you walk by, you reinforce your resentment of homeless people asking for help and his feelings of isolation, rejection, and hopelessness.

Breaking the Cycle

Now imagine you take a moment to ask about his situation instead of making assumptions. Maybe you’d learn that he’s a retired veteran who couldn’t find a job, or just a decent, normal person who’s down on his luck. Whatever his story, when you hear it, it affirms that he’s a real person with real problems, hopes, and dreams. Meanwhile, he’s surprised and touched that you’re taking time out of your day to engage him and treat him with decency.

This simple action breaks you both out of your bias bubble. You make a genuine connection that was previously unavailable to you, and in the process, you make him feel less alone. Sometimes that’s much more heroic than leaping tall buildings or rescuing kittens.

A Cure for Cognitive Biases

Even if you don’t think of yourself as judgmental or prejudiced, you are. It’s human nature. But with conscious effort, you can acknowledge cognitive biases for what they are — faulty logic based on incomplete information — and look past them.

The “conscious effort” part is important. Some cognitive biases are subtle. So, it’s not surprising that people who practice mindfulness tend to be better at identifying and overcoming them. Often practiced through meditation, mindfulness is a state of being where you intentionally focus on the present. You pay attention to your emotions, thoughts, and surroundings. Unhampered by regrets of the past or fears about the future, you can accept yourself and others without judgment.

Many scientific studies have demonstrated how practicing mindfulness reduces prejudice and bias toward individuals of other races, ages, and political affiliations. As it turns out, most people agree. In a survey of 1,051 Americans, 87 percent of respondents agreed that practicing mindfulness creates a ripple effect that benefits the people around them. The vast majority (77 percent) agreed that adopting individual mindfulness even benefits the communities in which they live.

Most people also understand the negative impact that a lack of mindfulness can have on others. In the study, 85 percent admitted to engaging in negative interactions, such as lashing out or being rude to someone, simply because they were not consciously mindful. One-third of respondents admitted to missing a kindness opportunity because they weren’t fully present in the moment.

If you’ve been missing out on your hero moments, don’t worry. Once you become mindful of your own cognitive biases, you’ll start seeing new opportunities everywhere you look.