Character  &  Context

Overcoming the Biases That Come Between Us

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Elvis counsels, “Before you abuse, criticize, and accuse … walk a mile in my shoes.” Dylan wishes, “For just one time, you could stand inside my shoes.” Paul McCartney asks us once again to try to see it his way. If you are The King, a Nobel laureate, or a knight—not to mention a rock star—perhaps it is reasonable to expect that everyone else should take your perspective. For the rest of us, if we hope that “we can work it out,” it seems vital for us to try harder and try smarter to understand others—especially these days.

Our capacity to discern the thoughts and feelings of others, particularly those who hold views different from our own, seems to have hit an all-time low. Our politicians appear unable to talk to, much less listen to, much less understand one another. Groups with competing interests—conservationists and climate deniers, advocates for black lives and blue lives—seem to fare no better.

As bad as things are, they could grow worse. As the information age drowns us with ever-larger waves of data, we have a choice to either ignore swaths of incoming stimuli or process it more quickly and less carefully. We grow less accustomed to alien worldviews and feel more threatened by them, as gerrymandering and neighborhood segregation keep us quarantined from those with different opinions. With screen time replacing face-to-face time, some worry that today’s youth may especially struggle to take the perspective of others, particularly given the echo chambers that then constrain their cyber interactions to only communicating with like-minded peers.

Yet, the picture isn’t all bleak. Burgeoning research identifies an array of cognitive biases—those predictable flaws in our thinking—as a root cause of our struggles to understand each other. Now more than ever, scholars have a keen sense of how these biases function.

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This article originally appeared on the Behavioral Scientist, a non-profit online magazine that offers readers original, thought-provoking reports from the front lines of behavioral science.

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