“Although we assume intelligence is a buffer against bias…it can actually be a subtle curse.”
Jonah Lehrer- “Why Smart People are Stupid”
In fact, the more educated you are, or the higher up the food chain you are professionally and personally, the more likely you are to be affected and misguided by your cognitive blind spots! Translation: the smarter you are, the dumber your decisions can be! The people who successfully navigate around their blind spots have an unfair competitive advantage over those who remain blind to them. (Pun intended).
When we were cave-dwelling Neanderthals, our brains’ primary function was to make instantaneous decisions to help keep us out of harm’s way. Make the wrong decision and the dinosaur at the front of the cave ate you. The part of the brain responsible for this kind of thinking is the Amygdala (what I call the Lizard Brain). Neanderthals gave their Amygdala a workout. Decision-making was exclusively automatic, instantaneous, unconscious, and motivated by the need to survive. Fast forward. Our modern-day Amygdala retains the same urges. Motivated to protect us from harm, it constantly scans our surroundings for dangers real and imagined! But unfortunately our brains cannot differentiate between a dinosaur and a loaded conversation with our Director of Operations! Our brain tells us we’re going to get eaten and so we respond the same physically and psychically. ￼
Let’s look at what drives our modern day Lizard Brain:
• The Need to Feel Right/Certain- It is essential for Lizard Brain to feel right, to feel certain. Uncertainty creates huge amounts of anxiety for Lizard Brain.
• The Need to Feel in Control- The important thing here again is feeling. You do not have to be in control, but if your Lizard Brain can fool itself into feeling in control, it will do so to avoid the same kinds of anxiety created by uncertainty.
• The Need to Avoid Feeling Loss- Whether it is loss of money, glory, prestige, power, affection or relationship, Lizard Brain hates this feeling.
• The Need for Affiliation/Social Connection- This need creates two particular phenomena. First-like attracts like. In business you tend to hire, consult with, collaborate with, and generally seek out people like you. It feels safe and predictably comfortable which keeps Lizard Brain quiet. Secondly-people crave approval and social validation. Lizard Brain loves the feeling of being part of the “in” crowd, and will put up quite a fight to avoid losing that feeling.
When our four basic needs are being challenged, the physical and psychic sensations are EQUIVALENT to the feelings our ancestors had when we were being chased by dinosaurs. Again, our brains cannot tell the difference between the two. Here is the catch: when we respond from Lizard Brain we undermine the capacity to utilize the higher functioning part of our brains. The Pre-frontal Cortex (what I call our Human Brain) operates in a completely different manner. It’s conscious, slow, deliberate, and creative and has allowed our species to develop into artists, musicians, theologians, academicians, and doctors. Our Lizard Brain seeks to meet those 4 basic needs at any and all costs (including abandonment of reasoned judgment). Instead of making measured, intentional decisions within the Human Brain, Lizard Brain overrides the Human Brain to get your four needs met the fastest and with the smallest amount of anxiety. This “dueling dual system” creates our blind spots.
So, What Are Cognitive Biases/Blind Spots?
They are best understood by some concrete examples of how behaviors associated with them:
• Not seeing the impact you have on others.
• Overestimating your strategic capabilities.
• Believing the rules don’t apply to you.
• Avoiding difficult conversations.
• Having an answer for everything.
• Rationalizing poor performance by an underachieving hire.
They’re a predictable pattern of errors in judgment, inferences about people and situations made in an illogical fashion. But at the same time we’re absolutely certain that we are being logical, rational, and “right.” Simply put, blind spots are built in thinking errors we make in processing information; largely due to conflict between the two systems we have hardwired in our heads- the ‘Lizard Brain’ and the ‘Human Brain.’ We are “predictably irrational”. The concept of this ‘dual process theory’ is not new…but it is important to understand the biology behind it.
2 Myths about Blind Spots
Lest we believe that we can be inoculated from our cognitive biases, let’s look at two common myths about blind spots.
Myth #1: You can achieve a level of success and self-awareness where you no longer have blind spots.
WRONG. Blind spots are completely inescapable. No matter how good you get at recognizing your behavior patterns when you are operating out of your blind spots, or diffusing situations where your blind spots rear their ugly heads, you are HARD WIRED to make thinking errors based on what your Lizard Brain is telling you.
Myth #2: I have already done a training that helped me see all my blind spots, so I am done.
WRONG AGAIN. As new information becomes available and your circumstances shift, your blind spots will shift and change as well. The key is to be on the lookout for them so you can anticipate the errors in thinking that come from operating out of your blind spots.
The First Steps Towards Change
1. Own it. Have some healthy self-doubt. It is not weakness. It is not shameful. It is simply a part of life. The first step in making any meaningful change is the admission of the desire to do so. Understanding why blind spots exist and the underlying battle within your own brain goes a long way to that first step.
2. Get a second opinion. Judith Glaser, author of The DNA Of Leadership, says “Denial and Blind spots are one of the primary reasons why Executive Coaching is so vital for leaders, and why peer coaching is equally important for employees to practice. Coaching can effectively uncover and deal with blind spots and denial and give the decision-makers a fresh perspective on how to handle executive challenges.”
Whether it is a peer group, a personal coach, friend, or spouse— Be intellectually rigorous. Be hard on your opinions and decisions. Take them out and examine them thoroughly and intentionally. Have other people do the same, and never be afraid to make changes based on new data. Happy hunting!