5 Cognitive Biases that Distort Our Activism Every Day

If we're working together toward a new tomorrow, it's important we all get on the same page about today.

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In the Social Justice, Minus Dogma Course, I created an entire topic about cognitive biases. A few years ago, one of the comedy shows I performed was all about them, and how they show up in social justice activism. I find the concept fascinating, and see examples of biases in action daily – sometimes I notice myself acting upon them.

“Cognitive biases” are ways our thinking is unconsciously influenced to distort reality, mistaking our subjective view of something for the objective truth. This isn’t the same as “unconscious bias”, a mainstay in social justice conversations, but the ideas are certainly related.

The phrase “cognitive bias” is attributed to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and has since been popularized by Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

It’s interesting for us, beyond just being a fascinating human thing, because a lot of what leads to the “impossibility” of difficult conversation can be pegged on cognitive biases.

Or, put another way, we’re particularly likely to crash a conversation when our cognitive biases are in the driver’s seat.

I could spend hours talking about this subject, because there are literally hundreds of named cognitive biases, all with succinct descriptions that, once you hear them, you’ll notice everywhere. Oh, that’s actually one of the biases I wanted to talk about.

Let’s start with that.

“I’m seeing this everywhere now.”

This one is formally called the Baader–Meinhof Phenomenon, but people also call it the Frequency Illusion.

Here’s a synopsis:

Once you’ve noticed something, you start seeing that thing everywhere, creating an illusion that suddenly it has increased in frequency (instead of you just suddenly noticing a thing that was always there).

This shows up in social justice contexts when we learn about some dynamic of oppression (or teach others oppression), and then start to see it everywhere.

Racial microaggressions relating to “touching people’s hair” must be on the rise, because I’m seeing them everywhere.

“I only see what I expect to see.”

This one is Confirmation Bias, and it’s one of the most popular or widely-recognized cognitive biases (or maybe it just seems that way to me because I talk about it so much).

Here’s a synopsis:

“Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses.”

If you believe that something is true, you’ll notice all the evidence that says that thing is true. And you’ll discard, deprioritize, or explain away the evidence that says otherwise.

This shows up in social justice contexts, particularly within social justice dogma (SJD), whenever we’re encountering pushback, and also when we’re making sense of the news, people’s experiences, or even our own personal experiences. If we think that something is oppressive to the core, or an interaction was, everything that confirms that thought will come into focus, and everything that doesn’t will fade away.

That was definitely a racial microaggression, because my friends have all told me that the people here are racist.

“That person definitely means the worst.”

This one is called Hanlon’s Razor, and it’s a more specific version of the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a cognitive bias with a fun and mixed and unclear history, attributed to several different sources.

The popular synopsis:

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

But that’s more judgmental than it needs to be, or a more limited scope than is useful. Here’s an older quote, this one from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1774, that encapsulates it:

“Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.”

Basically, what Hanlon’s Razor says is that there is often an easier and simpler explanation for someone’s behavior than “they are evil.”

And in social justice, where we tons of suffering, and countless individual people supporting oppressive systems, there are plenty of situations where we reasonably attribute behaviors to malice. Or oppression. Or evil.

Hanlon’s Razor nudges us to ask, “What if the person wasn’t being deceitful or malicious at all? What if they were just misinformed, lazy, or doing merely what has been presented to them as the default?”

Of course what they were doing was racist, and they did it to (secretly) advance the goals of White Supremacy.

“That person must be generally great, because I saw them do this one great thing.”

This one is called the Halo Effect. It has a twin, or parallel cognitive bias, that shows up for us a lot as well: the Horn Effect. (I bet you can already guess the synopses)

Here’s a synopsis:

When we notice a positive thing about someone, we assume other positive things about them, even to the point of ignoring or diminishing negative things when we learn them.

The inverse, the Horn Effect, is just swapping positive for negatives. If we notice a negative trait in someone, we’ll be more likely to notice other negative traits.

You might be noticing how these cognitive biases build on one another, or might be operating in similar brain structures or learned tendencies. In this case, you are probably getting strong Confirmation Bias vibes.

In social justice, this shows up when we are introduced to someone via a particularly thing they did, said, or became famous for. If that thing was socially just, or a beautiful example of liberation or anti-oppression work, we will likely assume other dimensions of them align with that first impression. That they’re socially-just through and through.

On the flipside, if we’re first introduced to someone in a way that highlighted oppression, we’ll only see their future actions, or things we learn about them, through that lens. Once oppressive, always oppressive.

No, no, no, I don’t think they’re sexist. You must be misunderstanding. Remember, they wrote that amazing book about anti-racism.

“Most people probably feel the same way I do about this.”

This cognitive bias is called the False Consensus Effect. It’s particularly prickly if we’re talking about SJD.

Here’s a synopsis:

“People tend to overestimate the extent to which their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do).”

If you’re a member of a group, and you think a certain thing, there’s a good chance that you think everyone else thinks that, too. Or that almost everyone does, or, at the very least, most people do.

This can result in you incorrectly speaking on behalf of a group identity, or acting in ways that might compromise the goals of the group (or create conflict with other members), all in the name of the group. Hopefully that’s ringing some SJD bells.

I’m speaking for all People of Color when I say that everyone should support affirmative action programs.

Name Them to Tame Them

Talking about social justice issues is already hard enough. Adding into the mix the dogmatic (and unquestionable) bent within our movement, and we’re setting ourselves up to fail. And that would be if we weren’t subjected to the cognitive biases I walked us through above.

But I’m not trying to be a pessimist here (and doing my best to challenge any pessimism bias). I actually believe that, with all of this in mind, we’re in a good spot: we can (try to) do something about it.

In the spirit of “Name it to tame it”, there is a practice that I’ve implemented in lots of communities and relationships in my life. And I’d encourage you to give it a shot with your communities, friends, colleagues, or anyone else with whom you’re talking about SJD-related issues.

  1. If we notice that someone seems to be making a point that is influenced by a particular cognitive bias, we’ll name it.
  2. When people suggest we’re being influenced by a particular cognitive bias, we’ll thank them and consider it.
  3. And, when we’re feeling particularly thoughtful, we’ll name the cognitive biases that might be influencing our perspective on a point we’re making, while we’re making it.

What this looks like on the proactive side is flagging things as you’re saying them. For example, you might say “This might be confirmation bias talking, but…” or “I hope I’m not doing a Hanlon’s Razor thing, but…” before you share your latest hot take.

The benefit is that it provides a critical lens through which to view what you’re saying, and invites the person you’re talking with to call attention to that, if they notice it. You’re preemptively giving them permission to “call you out,” but in a constructive, beneficial way.

And on the reactive side you might simply flag things other people are saying, or that you’re reading, as being susceptible to these cognitive biases. “Hey, I think there might be some Horn Effect stuff going on here…”

I’m not advising you to use cognitive biases as a bad faith way to shut down other people’s perspectives (like the two-punch combo of internalized oppression and unconscious bias). Instead, simply to use them as ways to move conversations forward, to uncover more information, and to discover new viewpoints to consider a situation.

Leave Logs Unturned

With all this in mind, I want to wrap this up by acknowledging the reality of many of our situations: we’re not always in a place to have a deep conversation, we’re often exhausted, and we’re all going through a lot of stuff.

Doing our best to tame cognitive biases is necessary, I think, to create a path toward living social justice. And it’s not something that is always appropriate, that people have the energy for, or even the interest or capacity to see through.

Sometimes people (ourselves included) are just going to have their cognition biased. And we have to be okay with that.

Figuring out the logs we need to get out of the path so we can move forward, and the logs we should probably just walk around (or climb over or crawl under), is a big part of doing the work.

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