Working with your biases to make the most of your past, present, and future.
There is a tendency to look at the past as a way to help inform the future. By looking at past experience, we can make an informed decision and behave differently in the future.
We look at our past at all levels of the human condition:
- At a societal level, this is the value we place in documenting, studying, and teaching history.
- At organizational and team levels, this is where we have the practices of “post implementation reviews”, “post-mortems”, and “retrospectives”.
- At an individual level, this is the act of reflecting, journaling, or recounting a past experience and re-telling it as a story you share with a friend. …Or maybe your coach 🙂
There is a catch, though:
The past is about our memories, and our memories are tainted by bias.
When we experience inconsistencies or information that contradicts our existing beliefs, values, feelings, ideas, or actions, we experience a phenomenon psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance — the perception of contradictory information. The dissonance causes psychological distress which we then attempt to resolve by making the information or actions consistent.
Selective perception, for example, is a cognitive bias where we pay less attention to details that cause emotional discomfort or contradict a prior belief.
We filter out relevant information, and we fill in gaps to make meaning that make sense from our perspective.
What we perceive and believe to have happened in the past is ever only part of what actually took place.
This isn’t to say there is no value in looking at the past. Quite the contrary. Recalling the past in the present can be a way to plan for the future. For example, the emotions we associate with a past experience can be a way to find a source of motivation in the present. And the present is where we plan for the future.
So how can we work with our past experience — biases and all — as a way to set our sights on a different course of action for the future? Rather than ignoring our biases, and rather than absolving to the limitations our biases present, what if we work with our biases?
One way to address and work with our biases is to seek out more information that we may have initially brushed aside. Try out these questions as prompts to see what you might have been missing.
Questions to uncover our biases
- What would be a different way of viewing what happened?
- Who can share perspective that I may be missing?
- What assumptions am I making?
- What is another explanation for the events that unfolded?
The past is about memories. The present is about motivation. The future is about possibility. This triad is with us at all times, and so too are our biases. How do you work with your biases to maximize this triad?