Living in a world shaped by our biases

Every morning we wake up, our biases also wake up with us, influencing our thoughts and shaping our perception. Yet most of the times we are oblivious to them.

Havana, Cuba

Traveling has helped me gained some great insights on human biases. No matter which part of the world I am in, locals always use their own frame of reference to make assumptions about my country of origin. As far as they are concerned I could be anyone from anywhere.

When I was in India, people thought I was from Iran, in Indonesia, they thought I was from Turkey, in the US they thought I was from Canada, in Cuba they thought I was American, while in the UK they usually think I am from Spain. This reflects more about them and how they think rather of who I am.

The Limits of our Perception

In the “Allegory of the Cave” in his work “Republic”, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato highlights the limitation of our perception and how we can become prisoners of our own distorted reality. In the allegory, a group of prisoners is chained to the wall of a cave for their whole lives.

Living in a dark cave the only light they see comes from a small fire behind them. They can only see the shadow of people walking by. When one of the prisoners escapes, she is shocked to realise that the world of shadows is not real. This is the beginning of her intellectual journey. When she returns back, the other prisoners don’t believe her and threaten to harm her if she lets them free.

Plato’s Cave Prisoners

So, are we becoming victims of our own expertise?

Expertise and Overconfidence

Engineers are a good example of people that spend many years of their lives accumulating knowledge on specialised fields. As they build their experience they grow more confident of what they know and dismiss things that fall outside their frame of reference.

This is similar to someone sitting on the top of a mountain peak alone, thinking they have conquered everything.

Like engineers, we all have expertise in one domain or the other. But when we are faced with new wicked problems, we fall into the trap of our existing assumptions. As a result, we fail to listen or ask the right questions, trying to fit the reality to us,rather than us adapting to the reality.

According to the Dunning-Krueger effect we tend to overestimate what we know, and feel more confident than we should. There is a strange paradox. The less we know, the more confident we are of what we know (‘Peak of “Mount Stupid”). Strangely, once we become more competent our confidence drops substantially and never goes back as high as before. 

Diverse Teams Eliminate Biases

This is why it is crucial to not rely only on overconfident individuals but rather on diverse teams of people, who can collectively counterbalance each other biases. and see a much richer picture.

Collectively, a team of people is much more intelligent, creative, and innovative. It also has broader perspectives, and can capture tacit knowledge more effectively than any individual.

Of course, teams can also have issues, especially when they are comprised of many “experts” who insist on what they know. Therefore, it can lead to major arguments, open conflict and disfunction where nothing gets done.

On the other hand though, when there is little diversity and everyone in the team thinks in exactly the same way, then the team is not really serving its purpose either.

In a well-functioning team, there is synthesis of diverse expertise and knowledge, there are healthy debates and constructive arguments. In addition, there is understanding of people’s limitations, and there is respect to everyone’s views.

Achieving this balance is not easy and requires ongoing awareness and reflection. Going against our beliefs, thoughts and assumptions can make us feel uncomfortable. But we shouldn’t get trapped in our own reality, like Plato’s prisoners.

There is a much bigger picture out there, if we only open our minds to people around us.

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