28 Sep

Compassion fade

So you think you’re in control?

‘Compassion fade’ is the tendency to experience a decrease in empathy as the number of people in need of aid increases.

When we readily identify with another person in need of help, our survival-thinking brain responds by creating similar emotional effects in ourselves. While experiencing empathy for the victim, we too can feel fear, anger and sadness. This is a phenomenon known as the ‘identifiable victim effect’.

When the number of victims increases to the point at which their faces (stories, experiences) all blend together in an abstract mass, making identification less easy, so our sense of empathy or compassion recedes. What we have in common with them appears less prominent and our feeling of connection is reduced.

News stories make personal the experiences of real-life named individuals so that we can better understand and empathise and consider our own connection with their situation and the actions we can take in response.

If we could identify more strongly with potential future victims of our actions, perhaps we would be more conscientious in following preventive measures: endure our own personal hardship in short-term isolation now to reduce the long-term detriment and permanent loss of the faceless victims we might never meet.

Just another nameless victim in the crowd? Or someone just like you?
25 Sep

Bizarreness effect

So you think you’re in control?

The ‘Bizarreness effect’ is the tendency to commit to memory more easily information that appears to be bizarre compared with more common information surrounding it.

The distinctiveness of the bizarre information makes it stand out and so the brain pays more attention to it than other information that perhaps it is already familiar with. If something is new, the emotional-thinking part of the brain is alert to an unfamiliar situation and so its awareness is heightened. Could this bizarre event be threatening?

Interestingly, the origins of the word ‘bizarre’ come from the Italian word ‘bizzarro’ which means ‘angry’. If something in your environment appears to be angry, there’s a chance that anger is aimed at you. Your brain picks up on this emotionally and so commits the distinctiveness of the event to memory.

To counter this effect, consider what appears to be ‘relatively normal’ in the background. Its normality is relative to the bizarreness – but still could be different to what you’re expecting – and yet your brain has overlooked it. Look again.

Bizarre information is distinctive and committed to memory easily.
24 Sep

Availability cascade

So you think you’re in control?

The ‘availability cascade’ is a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of certain kinds of collective beliefs and their proliferation throughout society.

A novel idea or insight, usually one that seems to explain a complex process in a simple or straightforward manner, gains rapid currency by its very simplicity and by its apparent insightfulness. Finding the concept easy to understand, individuals become more confident in their ability to explain the complex process or situation to others, thereby increasing their sense of mastery, boosting their ego along the way.

The basic human emotional needs of belonging, finding meaning and having some element of autonomy help the information become a belief upon which the individual depends for a sense of security. Needing to belong prompts others to accept at face value the new information, and so the belief becomes embedded and passed on more and more widely, building in momentum from a mere trickle to a cascade.

And yet the accuracy of the initial information is seldom tested. If enough people of power (see ‘authority bias’) tell us enough times what is ‘true’, then who are we to question? Remain healthily sceptical and question when you can.

P.S. Pass it on!

“That’s a nice waterfall, isn’t it?” “Yes, dear.”
23 Sep

Availability bias

So you think you’re in control?

The ‘availability bias’ (also known as the ‘availability heuristic’) is the tendency we have to rely on information we can recall immediately from memory as being more important than information that takes a little longer to access.

Primed with this information ‘freshly-plucked’ from our memories, we can then make decisions using it and be less inclined to search for and consider other possibilities. This tendency is reinforced by the consequences of past actions being remembered as more consequential than they actually were in reality.

Information is easier to remember and recall when it is vivid and recent. Emotional memories are usually vivid in order to help us pay attention to potential threats. If powerful enough, an emotional memory can prevent us from weighing up rationally the potential consequences of a future course of action, leading us to make decisions based on past experience rather than the actual reality.

Avoid falling into this trap by asking yourself what information you are missing. Invite input from others who have not shared the same experiences as you. Then weigh it all up and decide. And most importantly, make a mental note of how you did this…ready for the next time.

Does being prominent make a difference?
22 Sep

Automation bias

So you think you’re in control?

‘Automation bias’ is the tendency we have to rate more positively (i.e. better than a ‘neutral’ rating) information that has been provided by an automated decision-making source, and to ignore contradictory information derived from sources that are not automated (such as another human being)…even when the latter is correct.

Problems can arise when decision-making is dependent on computers or other automated aids and the human is in an observatory role but able to make decisions. Automation aids rapid decision-making, which is particularly useful when time is short (e.g. responding to an emergency in an aircraft). However, the same bias can be seen in action whether piloting an aircraft or responding to a spell-checker in a word processing app: we’re less likely to stop and question, but more likely to do as we’re told.

What can you do? The next time the computer says ‘no’, ask “Why’s that, then?” Be curious. Never take things at face value.

“I must obey!” Why’s that, then?
21 Sep

Ego-centric bias

So you think you’re in control?

‘Ego-centric bias’ is the tendency to rely too heavily on one’s own perspective or to have a higher opinion of oneself than reality.

This bias seems to be a result of the psychological need to satisfy one’s ego. It influences the way that we form memories, in that experiences, events and beliefs are easier to recall when they match our own. The result is that our own actual involvement in a situation can become embellished. We like what we see, and so we find it easier to remember that.

Ego-centric bias also influences the way we value other people’s contributions in collaborative group work: we rate our own contribution more highly than others’ efforts (“well, naturally!”). Except in people who speak more than one language, who show less of this bias, perhaps as a result of having learned to pay closer attention to others’ thoughts and behaviours through their nonverbal as well as verbal communication.

To reduce the effect of ego-centric bias, try listing the positive contributions others make. Then identify your weakest contributions, and compare the two.

Do you like what you see? Does it remind you of good times?
18 Sep

Actor-observer bias

So you think you’re in control?

‘Actor-observer bias’ is the tendency for our explanations about cause-and-effect to differ depending on the role we play in those situations. If you are the ‘actor’ (the person directly involved in a situation, incident or occurrence), then you are more likely to explain what happened in terms of situational factors not in your control.

If you are the ‘observer’, however, then you are readier to attribute cause (and with it fault, error and blame) to the personality or characteristics of the person you are observing.

Picture the scene: a person walking down the street steps on a banana skin and slips over. In your mind’s eye, you’ve already decided it was their own fault. But trade places with that person and reconsider what happened, as you pick yourself off the floor in a fit of embarrassment, bottom and ego both significantly bruised. Where do you direct your anger now?

Also known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’, this tendency is seen in our readiness to jump to conclusions about systems failings being down to an individual person’s human error rather than matters outside of their control, aided and abetted by soundbite media giving only the snapshot.

Step back. See the bigger picture. Reconsider your initial judgements.

17 Sep

Anchors away!

So you think you’re in control?

‘Anchoring’ is the tendency to depend too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (considered to be the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments during decision making. Once the value of this anchor is set, all future negotiations, arguments, estimates, etc. are discussed in relation to the anchor.

This tendency is used in sales, when the asking price displayed (for example, on a used car) becomes the starting point for haggling over the final agreed sale price. The asking price becomes the ‘anchor’ keeping the negotiation within a particular range.

Consider this influence when you find yourself making judgements about others’ likely behaviour, based on what you’ve already seen or, worse, what you choose to attribute to them based on a stereotype of their race, sex, gender, faith , nationality or physical and mental abilities. Look for the anchors in your own prejudice and don’t let them become millstones around your neck!

16 Sep

Choice-supportive bias

So you think you’re in control?

This is the tendency, after we have made a decision, to ascribe to the circumstances of that decision positive attributes that were not present at the time. We bolster our confidence in having made the right decision by adding ‘more good reasons’ that demonstrate why the option chosen was the best one.

Having convinced ourselves of having made the right choice, we commit this to memory and use it to influence future actions of a similar nature. We write our own script.

Justifying our actions has important emotional reasons underpinning it: we like to feel we are competent and know what’s going on, and that we are accepted by others. It becomes harder to criticise behaviours that increase our feelings of security in those respects. We do things that make us feel good, and then we risk feeling bad because we realise that our choice was not that good. To avoid this pain, we add more ‘evidence’ to support our beliefs and actions.

To lessen this effect, it’s important to have an equally powerful and factual counter-argument that can be consciously played out. We owe it to ourselves to hear both sides of our own arguments.

15 Sep


So you think you’re in control?

The tendency to characterise animals, objects, and abstract concepts as possessing human-like traits, emotions, and intentions. In order to make sense of the world around us, we make comparisons of the things we see with memories of the things we have already encountered (i.e. that which we have learned).

As a large part of our early life memories are formed from encounters with other human beings, it would be reasonable to assume that the ‘schemas’ with which we work constitute human features – visual characteristics, such as faces, as well as movements. When we encounter an object that resembles something we’ve already experienced, so we can attribute human-like characteristics to it and respond to it in that frame of reference. These attributions are of our own making; we ‘see’ things that are not actually there.

Sometimes anthropomorphism can fulfil can emotional need, such as the need for belonging and company. Consider Tom Hanks in the film ‘Castaway’ and his Man Friday companion equivalent in the form of ‘Wilson’ the ball.

One way of countering this tendency is to consider how many ways the object is not like a human. See it for what it is.