How can two people view situations with such contrasting conclusions that they’d sacrifice relationships and outcomes?
While driving a winding road, I encountered a goose family crossing, forcing me to brake—hard. I knew the driver behind me didn’t see them, given her hand gesture and inexplicable mouthing of “casserole.” (No thanks, I thought, I just ate.) Nature unveiled itself, as mother goose led three furry goslings across.
Meanwhile, another driver approached me head on, saw the geese, and smiled widely. What an angel that man is for letting these creatures cross, I imagined she thought.
Which driver was right? Was I a casserole, or an angel?
Welcome to perception bias, a challenging place where our outlook muddies our actions. Our reactions matter less on the road than in the boardroom, family room, or community—where we can lose promotions, sales, and opportunity for connection or change.
So how do we see clearly in situations that are important (the outcome matters), complex (lacking an instructional YouTube video), and relational (involving another person)?
#1 Blind Spot Bias: Why We Think We Are Always Right
Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that we experience about 20,000 moments in a day, most lasting only a few seconds. Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia claims that our more than 11 million pieces of information enter our brains at any given moment. So each day, our brains are bombarded with 220,000,000,000 pieces of data!
The problem lies in our data interpretation. We think our view is correct, yet research suggests each person is highly influenced by background, vantage point, etc. A blind spot bias kicks in when we assume that other people interpret events differently from us because they have biases while we are blind to the fact that we too have been influenced by our own biases.
What is the likelihood that our interpretation (of what we see, hear, experience) is entirely correct, and the person’s next to us is wrong?
Our own biases tell us we’re right and others are wrong. How do we overcome this bias? Simply acknowledge that we bring our own biases to every situation in life.
#2 Confirmation Bias: We Seek Out Evidence That We Are Right
Confirmation bias is our tendency to ignore opposing information, while actively seeking that which supports our beliefs. On social media, we may block those we disagree with, while “liking” those we agree with. We read articles that reinforce our ideas and ignore those that don’t. While some boundaries can be helpful to reduce triggers, ignoring ideas in opposition to our own can cut off our own growth and connection by blinding ourselves to new ideas—especially in moments when a solution is crucial.
Let’s face it, being right is a nearly universal human addiction. Take any hot talking point: healthcare funding, gun control, raising the minimum wage, how to allocate the budget or tackle the next project.
The question isn’t who’s right? A better question is “how does confirmation bias challenge my current perspective?” I’m not advocating shifting your deepest values for someone else; I am suggesting your vision could sharpen and relationship deepen by learning from “the other side.”
How do we avoid the confirmation bias trap? Think about a position you care strongly about, like politics, leadership, or child rearing. Pretend you are an alien visiting the planet, seeking to understand humans. Detach yourself temporarily from your beliefs. Instead of blanketly dismissing well-intentioned, informed, and intelligent people as wrong, interview others. Ask quality questions—being neutral and inquisitive, seeking facts instead of emotional appeals. After completing your research, evaluate your growth by completing this sentence: “On the topic ___, I now understand how people can see things from that perspective when I consider _____ .”
Bonus: the shared understanding in these conversations builds mutual trust.
#3 Correspondence Bias: We Judge Others Differently than Ourselves
Correspondence bias leads me to believe that when I fail, it’s because of the environment, but when you fail, it’s because of your flawed character. Remember the snippy driver? Blinded to the geese, she labeled me a “casserole.” Yet if she were driving in front of me and came upon the goose family, she too would have stopped, swear-free.
How do we fight that inborn tendency to judge others by their actions for the same behaviors we forgive in ourselves?
Challenge your absolute thinking.
No one is always a “jerk,” bad driver, insensitive, slow to complete tasks, impatient, etc.
Replace quick generalities by stating contrary evidence.
When your significant other doesn’t text you back immediately, assume they are busy. If your child misses one homework assignment, think of all of the assignments they have turned in on time, and explore what made this one slip. When your employee misses a single deadline, assume they are juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, and one occurrence does not a trend make. Cut people the same slack that you cut yourself. Others deserve the same grace.
Update your truths.
Be willing to update your truth to one that is more accurate rather than simply trying to change others to accept your equally-distorted perception. Put your views through a “system update” periodically to challenge your empathy and understanding.
To learn more, check out just-released Getting It Right When It Matters Most.