8 Brain Biases Preventing Self-Awareness

8 brain biases

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Brain biases are preventing you from being self-aware.

Imagine trying to be self-aware by analyzing yourself in the mirror.

Now imagine trying to analyze yourself in the mirror when there’s a strobe light flashing behind you, a David Chapelle video playing overhead, a monkey on your back, and a 5-pound gummy bear in your mouth.

No, I’m not describing my cousin’s acid trip (although that would be quite the trip). Instead, I’m trying to paint you a picture of how many brain biases get in the way of being more self-aware.

Our own mind is to blame for most of these obstacles.

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We know what self-awareness is

If you’ve been reading my previous posts in the series, you probably know what self-awareness is and how it benefits you. You also understand that there are two types of self-awareness: internal and external self-awareness.

Maybe you’ve even played my very legitimate, very credible 22 Questions for Self-Discovery game and won a prize.

At this point, you might be sitting pretty high and mighty, thinking, I’ve got this self-awareness stuff in the bag. At various points in my self-awareness journey, I did too.

I thought, since I’ve done the research and put in a lot of work, I deserved my self-awareness badge.

Just like the person who shouts loudly, “I don’t care what you think!” is actually the one who cares the most, the first person to declare, “I’m self-aware!” is usually the one that’s furthest from being self-aware.

Our Brain Biases Make Self-Awareness is Incredibly Difficult

The other day I was listening to the memoir Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb. The book quickly became a New York Times Bestseller, but that’s not why I’m mentioning it. In the book, Gottlieb describes her journey going to therapy at age 50 and the many revelations she had about herself.

This woman attended medical school, works as a professional psychotherapist, and is an accomplished writer. If that’s not a recipe for a self-aware person, I don’t know what is.

Yet she still was surprised at how little she understood herself.

Self-awareness is incredibly tricky for many reasons.

There is a long, long list of things that prevent us from being more self-aware. Some stem from our evolutionary roots.

Others stem from our unique human flaws (I like to envision the evolutionary process being like, Let’s give them opposable thumbs, an increased capacity for language, and a fun smattering of cognitive and emotional shortcomings, just to keep things interesting.)

The more you understand what is preventing you from being more self-aware, the more you might be able to keep these influences at bay.

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8 Brain Biases That Are Preventing You From Being Self-Aware

1. Unreliable memory

We often view our memories as factual, meaningful recollections. As such, we use them as guideposts in helping us build our self-awareness. This, however, is preventing you from being self-aware.

Humans suck at remembering things correctly.

Our brains make up details to fill in the blanks that we don’t know. We suppress painful or traumatic memories. Even when it’s not traumatic, we are easily influenced by someone else’s version of the story. We are also affected by groupthink and the people around us.

The list of reasons goes on and on.

You may have heard the issue of unreliable memory come up in court cases with witness accounts. People have been wrongfully convicted not because the witness lied, but because they were telling a misremembered truth.

Our unreliable memory affects our self-awareness more than we realize.

When I was in high school, my cousin lent me her DVD collection for the show Friends. Several years later (I wasn’t the most punctual at returning things), she told me I could just keep the set as a gift for my birthday.

Except that, a couple years after that, she adamantly denied giving me DVD’s as a gift. We still debate over who is right (thank god Friends is on Netflix now so we can put the issue to rest).

Now imagine if I used the Friends DVD situation as a piece of evidence for my self-awareness journey.

I might conclude that I should feel guiltless gratitude, as I own the collection. Maybe, however, the DVD’s should serve as a glaring reminder that I need to improve my respect for others’ belongings and return things in a more timely fashion.

Memory is significant, but we need to remember that our memory is unreliable. As such, it gets in the way of us being more self-aware.

BRAIN BIASES

2. Sunk-cost fallacy: We don’t know how to cut our losses

Have you ever heard of the sunk-cost fallacy? It’s a cognitive bias that causes humans to continue to do something because of our previous investment in that thing.

Put simply, we don’t know how to cut our losses – much to our detriment.

I spent three months one summer writing a book. At about 100 pages, I began to feel the pressure of a flawed storyline. There were a lot of plot holes, and I didn’t know how to logically fix the problems without rewriting the beginning.

At page 100, the smart decision would have been to restart my book. It would be counterproductive to plow on for 100 more pages (which would be useless without fixing the plot holes).

For those of you who are wondering if you can find my book at Barnes and Noble because I made the smart decision, you’d be wrong. The sunk-cost fallacy got me. I can’t throw away 100 pages – I’ve put so much time in already!

In these moments, our brain biases make decisions to move forward with a different framework than a rational choice from the start.

We think the extra costs incurred (whether they be more time, money, or inconvenience) are worth it. Namely because we’ve put so many in thus far.

Sunk-cost fallacy inhibits our self-awareness significantly.

Rather than being aware as a neutral, objective party, our brains begin to weigh things differently in our minds. This can lead to poor decision-making and less understanding of what we need.

3. Self-Serving bias: We take credit for things that work for us and place blame when things don’t go well

Humans aren’t only bad at cutting our losses (What is that called again? Oh right, sunk-cost fallacy. (That’s a teacher recall trick for learning something, if you were wondering)). We also are bad at owning them.

Our brains have a self-serving bias in which we play the blame game for things that don’t go well in our lives.

Bad performance? It was poor conditions. Failed test? The teacher didn’t give me enough time to prepare. A fight? She was the one who put me in a bad mood.

In passing along the ownership to external factors, we are trying to protect ourselves from shame or guilt. On a bus ride home from a loss, I feel a lot better thinking, My players didn’t have good energy, the referring was terrible, and the gym was poorly lit, rather than, I wasn’t strategic enough as a coach to motivate my team to win.

In blaming external factors rather than looking inward at ourselves, we severely limit our ability to be self-aware.

Now, does the “blame game” also work for positive things? Of course not! Naturally, we are quick to take credit for things that go well in our lives. A win is because of my genius coaching strategy; a well-played game is because of the drills I had my players do in practice.

The self-serving bias makes us feel better temporarily, but it prevents us from being self-aware in the long run.

4. Confirmation bias: We look for things that support us

Another fun little self-awareness-blocking trick our brain likes to play is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for, interpret, and remember new information that supports our pre-existing beliefs.

For example, if you believe that Bigfoot exists, you’re going to look for evidence that confirms your theory. You will also overlook or neglect any ideas that might prove you wrong.

Because of my own vulnerability issues, it was difficult for me to fully trust my boyfriend. I had a tendency to build a case against his unreliability, collecting situations that supported my accusations. (He didn’t call when he said he was going to, he promised to clean and he didn’t, he didn’t follow-through with his to-do list.)

When I hyper focused on this notion, three negative things were happening. First, I was ignoring all of the admirable moments that proved I could trust him. Second, I was actively looking for evidence and sometimes forcing it to work for my theory.

And third, I was not being self-aware.

Confirmation bias blocks necessary feedback for self-awareness.

Neuroscientist Tal Sharot describes four factors that determine if we’re going to change our beliefs:

  • Our old belief
  • Our confidence in that old belief
  • The new piece of data
  • Our confidence in that piece of data.

The further away a new piece of data is from what we already belief, the less likely it’ll change our beliefs.

Not to mention the fact that we try to actively discredit new evidence if it doesn’t align with our viewpoints.

You can see how this could prevent you from being self-aware. (Or, if you believe you are self-aware, you will dismiss this bias as silly and non-applicable to you… aka confirmation bias).

5. False Consensus Bias: We think everyone agrees with us

Have you ever given a review of a movie and assumed everyone agreed with you? I mean, how could they not agree with me… Snakes on a Plan was literally just two hours of snakes on a plane (and fifteen seconds of Samuel Jackson swearing about snakes on a plane).

The thing is, not everyone agrees with us as much as we think they do.

We overestimate the extent to which our thoughts, values, and habits are typical for other people.

Do you remember finding out that other families operated differently than yours when you were a child?

My mind was blown one day when I went over to my friend’s house and ate dinner at 7:30pm in front of the television. Didn’t all families eat dinner no later than 6pm at the kitchen table?

False consensus bias is like this, only more pervasive and more subtle.

As we work to develop our self-awareness (and in particular, our external self-awareness), we need to understand our impact on the people around us. We also need to know how our views hold up against others.

If we believe that our thoughts, feelings, and patterns are the norm, we are shrinking our world and limiting our self-awareness.

False consensus bias

6. Hindsight Bias: We should have seen it coming

Being self-aware centers on reflection, and reflection centers on things that have happened in the past. It’s a tad challenging to reflect on the future. (Sidenote: why is the opposite of reactive proactive, but the opposite of reflective isn’t proflective?)

This examination of past events doesn’t only get messed up with unreliable memory. Hindsight bias also interferes with our perception of the past.

With hindsight bias, our brains literally make us believe that we predicted something when we actually had no clue.

In other words, hindsight bias makes us say, “I knew it all along.”

Let’s say Karen and Johnny are debating if they should take the subway or a taxi home. Johnny ultimately persuades Karen to take the subway, and she obliges. Then, by complete chance, the subway breaks down for thirty minutes. Karen might mutter, “I knew this was going to happen.”

NO KAREN, you didn’t!

Hindsight bias is most apparent when games or contests of some kind are involved (“I knew my team was going to win the game!”), but it can affect you on a day-to-day level too.

You think you saw a decision coming, or a result coming, or a behavior coming.

By thinking that you predicted the outcome, you fail to see the larger picture of everything that contributed to it, including your own role.

In order to be more self-aware, you need to doubt yourself a little more when you think you “knew it all along.” More than likely, you didn’t.

7. Optimism Bias: We think we should succeed more than everyone else

Optimism is good, right? For the most part, yes. Being optimistic will lead you to higher levels of happiness.

But optimism bias can hinder your self-awareness.

By default, we believe that we deserve success more than everyone else. This belief is not founded on any actual data (we work harder, we are more talented, etc.), although these notions certainly play into it.

Our brains simply tell us, against all logic: I should be more successful than others.

Of course, once this belief is ingrained, we use confirmation bias to gather the data and evidence in support of it. It’s like our brain is gathering together all of its biased powers like soldiers in an armed attack.

Even as I write this blog, I’m envisioning thousands of people reading and subscribing, eventually buying funny My Question Life merchandise; all of this success will no doubt lead to a book deal (I’m coming for you, J.K. Rowling).

It’s not wrong to fantasize or dream about these things for fun.

It’s when we start believing that these outcomes should be more accurate for us than others that we get ourselves into trouble.

We need to stay grounded in our lives and goals in order to be self-aware of the process.

self-serving brain bias

8. In-Group Bias: We believe everyone in the group is better than those not in the group

Everyone always references the classic novel Lord of the Flies when they explain groupthink, and as an English teacher, I feel obligated to do so… okay, I mentioned it. Obligation complete. Not everyone reads heinous novels about children murdering each other on the beach.

Have I got your attention? Cool.

In-group bias is when we believe everyone in the group – namely, our group – is better than anyone not in our group. It’s a widespread phenomenon that we are all susceptible to.

The funny thing is, these groups don’t even have to be serious groupings. In-group favoritism certainly makes sense when you are on a longstanding team, but the bias is much less evident than that (after all, obvious biases just don’t make sense).

In-group bias can be as arbitrary as “If you are born in June, stand over here. Everyone else, stand over there.” BAM. Just like that, all the June babies are chillin together as a united front, saying things like, “We’re like so much better than the July-May babies, like seriously.”

What’s more, countless examples of in-group bias show how much it can affect our thinking.

People have literally become discriminatory, violent, and even murderous toward people out of their group (okay, perhaps it did come back to Lord of the Flies. Damn you Piggy!).

What’s this got to do with self-awareness? The more caught up we are with in-group thinking, the more distorted our view of ourselves becomes.

In-group bias clouds our perception and prevents us from being self-aware.

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How to Overcome These Brain Biases to Be More Self-Aware

If you’ve read the first few posts of the series, you know that there are things you can do to become more self-aware. Additionally, you can explore bizarre questions to try to shake your mind loose.

All of these strategies, however, rely on our brains to be accurate and truthful.

Unfortunately, our brains are not accurate and truthful. An army of brain biases are battling to deceive us at every turn.

What can we do to defend ourselves against these brain biases?

Since it’s very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to turn off our brain biases, we need to teach ourselves to be more aware of them.

You’ve taken a step toward this awareness by reading this post.

Next, you need to question where these brain biases might be playing out in your life. To be more self-aware, consider:

  • Are you judging yourself based on memories that might be unreliable?
  • Are you putting too much energy into something you should give up?
  • Are you blaming external factors when you should be taking ownership?
  • Are you only seeing information that supports your pre-existing beliefs, and closing yourself off from information that might challenge your beliefs?
  • Are you acting under the impression that everyone agrees with you?
  • Are you overestimating your ability to predict the outcome of events?
  • Are you falling into the belief that you deserve to have more success than others?
  • Are you influenced by thinking everyone in your group is better than those not in your group?

Be careful. Our biases are going to make it difficult to see our own biases.

find clarity against brain biases

Conclusion

Self-awareness is incredibly tricky, as there are a number of things getting in the way of being self-aware. Namely, a series of brain biases are altering our beliefs and tricking our brains into believing something that is not true.

These cognitive flaws include:

  1. We have an unreliable memory
  2. Sunk-cost fallacy: we don’t know when to cut our losses
  3. Self-serving bias: we blame external factors when things don’t go well but take full credit for when things do go well
  4. Confirmation bias: we seek information that supports our pre existing beliefs
  5. False consensus bias: we believe everyone agrees with us
  6. Hindsight bias: we overestimate our ability to predict outcomes
  7. Optimism bias: we think we deserve success more than others
  8. In-group bias: we believe our group is better than others

By learning about these brain biases and how they affect us, we can overcome their disadvantages and build our self-awareness.

Guess what… we are biased about being biased. But we can work on it. Choose a question below and post a comment. Your brain biases don’t want you to do it – fight them!

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FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS

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Comment below with answers, ideas, and more questions, or contact me to collaborate on a future post!

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EXPLORING YOURSELF

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Where do you recognize these biases playing a role in your life?

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Which of these biases do you think has the biggest influence on you?

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Have you ever remembered something as true and been proven wrong?

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EXPANDING YOUR WORLD

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Why is human memory so unreliable?

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How can humans defend themselves against biases?

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Where has in-group bias contributed to important events in history?

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