• joe@jhanderson.biz   
    (206) 351-5607   

  • You’re probably not any keener than I am to think of yourself as an overgrown rat in a lab, obsessively pushing buttons to get rewards and avoid punishments. Of course that’s not all we are (otherwise I couldn’t type this and you couldn’t read it), but there are substantial portions of our circuitry that was handed to us without much control over the configuration. Since bias is one of the more troublesome, uncontrollable aspects of our default configuration, consider how you can put the low-level reactive nervous system to work in service of your more conscious aims.

    The first step is to choose a recurring issue you have with faulty thinking. My advice is to start with something you’ve been burned by recently. I’m going to use the example of the “sunk cost fallacy:” behaving as though money you spent yesterday is somehow capable of being recovered and used differently for a future investment. Not long ago I realized that I had made a substantial miscalculation in my benefits package for my business that cost me a fair bit over several months. It took me a number of days to realize that my planning outlook was being impacted by this sunk cost, which was in the past, over and done with, and completely out of my control. (We do get a little confused about the nature of time.)

    I’m helping myself work with this sunk-cost tendency using a rat-like trick. The idea is to give your nervous system a minor but noticeable jolt in association with the behavior you want to become more aware of, followed by a persistent tactile reminder of your intention. You could use a rubber band on your wrist, or a beverage that you find especially distasteful. A.J. Jacobs, the author of The Year of Living Biblically and many other immersion projects, used donations to an organization he despised as motivation to change his behavior (in his case it was snacking on dried mangoes).

    When working with bias, though, it’s important to avoid being too harsh. You’re working with ingrained reactions that may not simply disappear overnight, if at all. The goal is not to tame your vulnerability to a particular bias—that may or may not be possible. But you can heighten your awareness of it, reduce the amount of time you waste being in its thrall, and minimize the bad decisions you make because of it. And that’s about the best you can expect.

    So I’ve got a sunk-cost rubber band on my wrist, always reminding me of my tendency to try to warp the space-time continuum to change things I can’t change. And when the impulse strikes again, I’ll give myself a snap.

    Try It: Consider a piece of inaccurate thinking that has gotten you into trouble recently. Put a rubber band on one wrist and set the intention to become more aware of your vulnerability to that bias. Whenever you realize (or more likely, someone else points out) that you have fallen into the fallacy, give the rubber band a good snap, and move it to the other wrist. When it happens again, do it again. Keep it up, and notice the shift. As circumstances change, you may want to shift to focus on a different bias. There’s a limitless supply.

    Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeporterinmd/4707654471  (CC BY-SA 2.0)