Overcoming the Biases That Come Between Us

Elvis counsels, “Before you abuse, criticize, and accuse … walk a mile in my shoes.” Dylan wishes, “For just one time, you could stand inside my shoes.” Paul McCartney asks us once again to try to see it his way. If you are The King, a Nobel laureate, or a knight—not to mention a rock star—perhaps it is reasonable to expect that everyone else should take your perspective. For the rest of us, if we hope that “we can work it out,” it seems vital for us to try harder and try smarter to understand others—especially these days.

Our capacity to discern the thoughts and feelings of others, particularly those who hold views different from our own, seems to have hit an all-time low. Our politicians appear unable to talk to, much less listen to, much less understand one another. Groups with competing interests—conservationists and climate deniers, advocates for black lives and blue lives—seem to fare no better.

As bad as things are, they could grow worse. As the information age drowns us with ever-larger waves of data, we have a choice to either ignore swaths of incoming stimuli or process it more quickly and less carefully. We grow less accustomed to alien worldviews and feel more threatened by them, as gerrymandering and neighborhood segregation keep us quarantined from those with different opinions. With screen time replacing face-to-face time, some worry that today’s youth may especially struggle to take the perspective of others, particularly given the echo chambers that then constrain their cyber interactions to only communicating with like-minded peers.

Yet, the picture isn’t all bleak. Burgeoning research identifies an array of cognitive biases—those predictable flaws in our thinking—as a root cause of our struggles to understand each other. Now more than ever, scholars have a keen sense of how these biases function.

Looking beyond how biases function, to what function they serve, we see that two basic motives derail our best efforts to read others accurately: self-protection and efficiency.

But why do we have them in the first place? Humans evolved an entire chunk of gray matter dedicated to interacting with others because our survival depended on it. So why would we then evolve biases that undermine this capacity that took us millennia to cultivate?

Looking beyond how biases function, to what function they serve, we see that two basic motives derail our best efforts to read others accurately: self-protection and efficiency. By improving our understanding of these underlying motives, we might better recognize when we are succumbing to these genres of flawed thinking and when we are falling victim to the biases of others.

To start, let’s assume that we are primarily motivated to see others as they truly are. After all, accurate information about others should best guide our interactions with others. Nobody would want to spend their days isolated in their own unique alternative reality, misreading the thoughts and feelings of their friends, family, and co-workers. So, when we are motivated to misperceive others—or, more precisely, when other motives override our primary motive of accurately reading others—it is probably for a good reason.

One good reason might be to protect our sense of self. Accurately perceiving others raises the unsettling possibility that our perceptions will occasionally result in unpleasant inferences. Depending on the situation, we might conclude that others dislike us, that we are less talented than we thought, or that actions we assumed to be innocuous actually harmed someone else. In these cases, it might feel better to misread others’ thoughts and feelings in order to keep thinking of ourselves as a good person.

Numerous biases can facilitate this protective function. For instance, when encountering a perspective that cannot coexist with our own—for example, supporting abortion versus opposing abortion—we might turn to naive realism. In this sequence of beliefs, we confidently know that 1) we see the world as it truly is, 2) others who agree with us also see objective reality, but 3) those who disagree do so because they are subject to different (presumably lesser) information, they are not trying hard enough to process the information properly, or they are biased. When we encounter people whose perspective on the environment, gay marriage, or immigration diverges from our own strong views, we rarely wonder, “What do they know that I don’t?” Nor are we likely to question how our own culture and background cloud our view of the issue. Instead, to protect ourselves against the possibility that we were wrong all along—a damaging revelation for one’s sense of self—naive realism allows us to assume that we see these issues correctly. We join Paul McCartney, lamenting that others don’t try harder “to see it my way.”

Another bias that preserves, and even enhances, our sense of self is the above-average effect. When it comes to relatively desirable attributes like intelligence, attractiveness, or trustworthiness, people (on average) presume that they are above average. This phenomenon is so robust that people convicted of robbery and violent crimes rate themselves above average on morality, honesty, and compassion.

Thus, we rarely assume that half of the people we meet are better than us on any particular trait. It makes sense. If we routinely believe that we’re worse than those around us it could sap our confidence and motivation, not to mention threaten our sense of self. Instead, we subconsciously trade the accuracy of our perceptions for a reassuring ego boost.

While stereotyping speeds our processing, it often comes at the cost of accuracy. Despite what George Carlin says, most drivers are neither idiots nor maniacs.

Another collection of biases erodes our accuracy for a different reason: efficiency. To help us process our complex social worlds more quickly, our brains rely on a library of mental shortcuts. Like protecting our sense of self, this second motive of efficiency also serves an important purpose.

Stereotyping is perhaps the most obvious example. By grouping people into categories, we immediately gain information on numerous key characteristics. Is this a friend or a foe? Should I behave formally or casually? Will I feel safe or threatened in this group? One can imagine how crucial this quick, efficient thinking was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who regularly dealt with imminent threats. While stereotyping hastens our processing, it often comes at the cost of accuracy. Not all NRA members vote Republican; sometimes, NFL linemen are poets; despite what George Carlin says, most drivers are neither idiots nor maniacs.

Other biases help speed our cognitive processing too. With the fundamental attribution error, we assume that others’ personalities, rather than their circumstances, constitute the driving force behind their behaviors. This efficient assumption saves us from imagining all the situational factors potentially influencing their behavior. In other words, teachers can easily infer that Johnny didn’t do his homework because he is lazy. But the cognitive load is too great to ponder whether Johnny works an extra job, cares for a younger sibling after school, or can’t focus because of his mother’s recent cancer diagnosis and then decide whether these situational factors might explain the missing work.

In navigating our social worlds, we primarily aspire to perceive others accurately. However, stronger motives—what we might think of as meta-biases that preserve our sense of self and help us think faster with less effort—may derail this central goal. A host of the biases behavioral scientists have documented in recent years serve one of these two basic functions. Understanding the function of these biases—and the costs they exact on the accuracy of our perceptions—will hopefully allow us to recognize when biases sabotage our attempts to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. Armed with this recognition, perhaps we can work it out after all.