How can your biases influence, impact, or even control your well-being? In what ways do your biases help or harm you? What if one of your biases prevented you from reading this article, causing you to miss out on life-enhancing knowledge? You would never know. That is just one way biases can impact your well-being by shutting out useful knowledge. Now that you know that, would you like to know what you can do to turn your biases into your well-being friends?
What are biases? Here is a widely used verb-based definition: “to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something”. That sounds reasonable, yet it begs the question: where does preference end and bias begin? If you like ice cream but only strawberry flavour, are you biased against all other flavours of ice cream? Unpalatable as it sounds, the answer is yes.
Our taste preferences and our biases, can have a massive impact on our well-being. Children who are biased against vegetables and fruit are at much higher risk of all sorts of diseases.
Adults who have a preference for beer over water are more likely to develop big bellies and many adverse health problems. Why? The bias results in behaviour, and the behaviour comes with consequences.
Knowing that our biases can and do shape our future, for good and ill, it is wise to understand them.
Biases can be conscious (explicit), unconscious (implicit), or partly conscious.
Conscious biases are those that we are (mostly) aware of and can control. They can be based on our personal experiences, beliefs, or values. Here are some:
- Gender bias. Gender bias is the belief that one gender is superior to another. Gender bias can lead to discrimination in employment, education, and healthcare. For example, a person might believe that men are better leaders than women or that women are better child carers than men. The gender bias in medicine leads to many women needlessly dying of heart problems because health carers are not as aware as they should be that many of the female symptoms of heart problems are different from those experienced by males. Gender bias can lead to women being paid less than men for the same work, being passed over for promotions, and being treated differently in social settings. It is thought that the higher suicide rate among men relates to gender bias: men are thought to be better able to control or deal with adversity than women, and as a result, they either do not receive or do not seek the support they need. Gender bias of all kinds can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical health problems such as heart disease and obesity.
- Racial bias. Racial bias is the belief that one race is superior to another. For example, a person might believe that white people are smarter than black people or that black people are better athletes. Racial biases often lead to overt and covert aggression and microaggressions. As the number of such tiny slights mounts over time, a person’s well-being is negatively impacted. Racial bias can lead to people being denied housing, healthcare, and employment and higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. People of any race can be subject to racial bias, usually when they are the minority living among a majority population.
- Age bias. Age bias is the belief that people of a certain age are less capable than others. For example, a person might believe that older people are not as intelligent as younger people or that youth are lazy and older workers are not. People give away their age biases in ways they are not aware of, for example, “Are you still playing hockey?” The word “still” implies: “you are too old for that”, or, at its mildest, “I am surprised that at your age you are still doing that.” Again, being subject to such biased-based microaggressions harms well-being.
- Weight bias. Weight bias is the belief that people of a certain weight are less valuable or worthy than others. For example, a person might believe that fat people are lazy, unhealthy, and lacking in self-control, or that very slim people are poor, alcoholics, or drug addicts. Being on the receiving end of such biases can exclude people from employment, housing, and social opportunities and can be as damaging to physical and mental health as any other bias or prejudice.
- Disability bias. Disability bias is the belief that people with disabilities are less capable than others. For example, a person might believe that a blind person cannot be a good professor or that blind people have better hearing, senses of touch, taste, and smell. Many newly disabled people, after having come to terms with their changed physical reality, then have to learn to deal with the disability bias to which they are subjected. For many people, the mental health damages caused by disability bias are much worse than the disability itself.
- In-group bias. In-group bias is the preference for individuals who belong to one’s own group or community over “others”, those from outside group. In-group bias, at its extreme, has been one of the causes of every war in history and will continue to be a primary cause of future wars.
Unconscious biases are those that we are (mostly) not aware of and cannot control. They are often based on our unconscious beliefs and assumptions. A note of caution may be useful here. Almost all biases can be conscious, unconscious, or part of each.
Further, we can be biased in multiple ways at the same time. That is, our biases can interact with, compound, or negate each other.
Here are some examples of unconscious biases:
- Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for and more readily accept information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore information that contradicts them. For example, a person who believes that men are better leaders might only pay attention to news stories about successful male leaders, while being oblivious to the vast array of skills of their female boss. Millions of people have died of cancer because of their confirmation bias: they believed “evidence” that smoking was not harmful to their health.
- Attribution bias. Attribution bias is the tendency to, on the one hand, attribute our own successes to our own abilities and on the other hand to allocate responsibility for our failures to external factors. For example, a person who gets a promotion might attribute it to their own hard work, while the same person who later gets fired might attribute it to a jealous boss. When it comes to health, many people attribute their health problems to external factors (genetics, upbringing, etc.), when the real cause is something they are doing to themselves, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, not exercising, not controlling their body weight, or not eating a healthy diet.
- Halo effect. The halo effect bias is the tendency to judge someone based on a single positive trait. For example, a person who is very attractive is assumed to be intelligent and talented in all sorts of other areas as well, even though there is no evidence to support that assumption. Being assumed to have abilities that one does not have creates all sorts of problems. For instance, not needing help when it is desperately needed
- Horns effect. The horns effect bias: making overall negative judgements about a person based on one negatively perceived trait or characteristic. Many miscarriages of justice have been caused by the horns effect. For instance, many rapists have been allowed to go on raping because their early victims were promiscuous and thus assumed to have flaws of integrity, too.
- Contrast effect. The contrast effect bias is unconsciously evaluating someone’s characteristics or performance based on the individuals they were compared to, rather than an objective standard. Can you imagine being related to a world-class performer in any field, and you don’t have or wish for those skills, yet everyone compares you to your star relative? Each time the comparison is made, your self-esteem is chipped. Contrast bias can work the other way, too. When a “serving” politician has been particularly mendacious and their successor is less so, people generally attribute excessive honesty to them, which is not deserved.
- Anchoring bias. Anchoring bias is unconsciously relying too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions or judgements. We find it easier to remember the first items on a list. That tends to make us focus on the first piece of information. When we are focused on something, as additional information becomes available, it is processed through the lens of the first information. In health terms, when looking for an explanation or course of action, that can often mean that people jump to conclusions based on whatever information was presented first. For example, if I told you a middle-aged man was breathless and complaining of pain in his upper left arm, you might anchor your thinking around “heart attack.” If you later learned that he was overweight and had been clearing snow, you might be even more convinced of heart problems. In fact, he had merely caused a muscle cramp in his left bicep.
- Conformity bias. Conformity bias is unconsciously aligning one’s beliefs and actions with those of a group, often leading to biased decisions or actions that may not reflect our individual values. When people are compelled, by social pressure, to behave in ways that are in breach of their integrity or core values, their mental health can be damaged, which in turn can cause physical health problems.
- Groupthink. Groupthink can lead a group to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the group because of a strong desire for consensus or conformity. This can lead to horrendously bad decisions that have negative consequences for everyone involved. Almost all of the organisational scandals have included a large element of group thinking. Many of those scandals have been in the healthcare field and have resulted in many deaths.
- Optimism bias. Optimism bias can lead us to overestimate our chances of success and underestimate our chances of failure. This can make us take unnecessary risks. Almost everyone who has died of smoking, alcohol abuse, or diabetes thought (consciously or unconsciously) that “it will be OK.” They overestimated their chances of escaping the consequences of their actions and underestimated the risks.
- Negativity bias. Negativity bias can lead us to focus on the negative aspects of any situation and ignore the positives. If habitual, our negativity bias can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and even, in extreme cases, suicide.
- Status quo bias. Status quo bias can lead us to prefer the current state of affairs, even if it is far from ideal. Status quo bias, if we had allowed it to get hold of us as a species, would still have us living in caves. Many people who have developed a serious health problem as a result of their own behaviour find it difficult to change their actions because, although harmful physically, they are comfortable. Their behaviour is the devil they know, and it is preferable to any unknown new world.
The above is a short list of just some of the human biases. How many different types of bias are there? This may go too far, but hopefully it makes the point: there are as many biases as there are human likes, dislikes, thinking styles, and preferences. That may mean that every conceivable human preference, thought process, or characteristic can be the basis of a bias.
Our biases can harm or help us. Being biased against all forms of alcohol can reduce our chances of cancer substantially. Being biased in favour of healthy, fresh foods can also boost our well-being. Those are obvious links between our biases and our well-being. How do we deal with the biases that are not so obvious?
We can use the five steps of science: observation, definition, explanation, prediction, and control.
Observation. When we have observed ourselves exhibiting a bias (and almost every decision reveals at least one of our biases), we define the bias we just observed.
We can then reflect on our decisions and try to explain why we chose that behaviour as opposed to another. “Why do I spend time with person B and not person A? Why does type of work X appeal and type Y repulses me?”
With a bit of practice, our self-awareness and self-insight increase. Gradually, we can begin to understand our biases.
The next stage is to test the theories of our biases: prediction. Our thoughts could be: “If I hold bias C, then each time I make a decision D, it will be an E outcome.”
Eventually, we can accurately predict our biases. The pinnacle stage is, control; we choose our biases consciously, to achieve, hopefully an ethical and morally worthy purpose.
We all have biases, and it is inevitable that our decisions and behaviours will be shaped by those biases. The wise approach is to shape our biases so that they enhance our well-being.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.