toolbox bias bubble illustration

Toolbox | To Solve Real Problems, Try Bursting Your Bias Bubble

By Curt Stedron | Oct. 4, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Let’s begin with a short bias quiz:

  1. What day comes after Saturday?
  2. What is the first month of the year?
  3. How many fingers do you have on one hand?
  4. Name a vegetable.

If, like most people, your answer to No. 4 was broccoli or carrots, then behold the power of our biases—our automatic judgments—to lock in on a truth without even thinking.

In recent years, individuals and organizations alike have focused on the ways cognitive biases can impact decision-making. This investigation is particularly useful for the legislature, a complex institution where individual and collective biases shape policies and procedures in often unseen ways.

In a legislature, individual and collective biases shape policies and procedures in often unseen ways.

Bias is a predisposition toward a particular truth or belief, like an invisible thumb tilting a scale in one direction. But it’s important to note that bias is a tendency, not a certainty. Biases might cause us to lean one way, but that inclination can be reversed. So while you may have a bias toward action films, that doesn’t mean you can’t sit sobbing through the end of “Marley & Me.” It’s a tendency, not a life sentence.

But why do we have biases in the first place? A better question might be, why do we need biases? Because biases are a feature, not a bug, of our brains. Here’s why: The brain can process 11 million bits of information per second, but we are consciously aware of only 40 bits at any time. To help us deal with that much unconscious information, our brains look for shortcuts, the easiest being to sort data into categories: This is good, that is bad; this is safe, that is unsafe.

Imagine primitive man hearing a rustle in the tall grass. By the time all the possibilities were processed—maybe it’s a bird; maybe it’s the wind; maybe it’s a rodent—a lion could have had a nice snack. Biases allow our brains to make quick decisions. Apply that idea to a legislative setting and the benefits of biases become clear. There is simply not enough time to process all the issues, facts, data, perspectives and personalities that constantly bombard us. Biases let us quickly make sense of things and facilitate decision-making.

The problem comes when we simplify our cognitive load so much that we eliminate real thinking altogether. How can we escape from our bias bubble—even briefly—to reengage the kind of thinking necessary to solve the most pressing problems? Let’s examine two techniques:

  • Employ Red Teaming. This practice involves adopting an adversarial perspective, forcing us to step into the shoes of those who have a radically different view of the playing field than we do—different values, assumptions, objectives—and to think like them as we assess our plans. It’s like the offensive coordinator of a football team inviting the defensive coordinator to review the plays before the action starts.
  • Perform a Premortem. Imagine the plan has already failed before it begins, requiring us to work backward to determine why. We ask, “What went wrong?” then correct the error before we take the first step forward.

Biases are unthinking judgments, and both of these exercises require that missing component: They force us to think. So while biases are necessary to help us sift through the vast amount of information that bombards us every second, they carry a distinct risk in a complex setting like the legislature. We came into this profession to improve the lives of our constituents, to make progress in areas that will truly help people. But as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw put it, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Curt Stedron is the director of NCSL’s Legislative Training Institute.

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