A lack of awareness shows itself in many ways, none more so than managing the impact of our cognitive biases.
In this article, I use the example of a friend who won’t have her second COVID-19 vaccination to show how our biases work. This is compounded by her lack of awareness and I’ll argue it's important we all work to become more self-aware, thus negating a lack of awareness.
Biases and a lack of awareness
A friend won't have her second AstraZeneca vaccination.
The blood clot issue frightens her, and she worries it will happen to her if she has the second jab. Of course, she had the first jab when there was no information regarding the potential dangers of blood clots. Then it was as simple as have the vaccination to reduce the impact of COVID-19.
But now the news is full of concerns regarding a possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccination and life-threatening blood clots.
My friend fears getting a blood clot from the second jab. She can't escape what her mind is telling her. The message is a simple one, protect your life – this is her only thought.
What drives this behaviour is an instinctive heuristic learned from a time gone by. When all that mattered was surviving one day at a time. Our biases are there to help us survive; what they don’t do is adapt to modern living.
What she can’t do is overcome the logic of probabilities, she can’t overcome the law of large numbers or see past the agent of recency.
Why? It is her lack of awareness.
What is a lack of awareness?
Self-awareness is a wonderful skill to have. What's more, having the capacity to step outside of your mind and observe yourself as you make decisions, consider your thoughts, and interact with others is astonishing.
This ability makes us unique on this planet and explains how we’ve become the dominant species here on earth.
So, what is a lack of awareness?
A lack of awareness is the failure to be able to see beyond your thoughts. It means we can’t grasp the impact of your emotions, actions, and behaviours. A lack of awareness shows itself through people being off-kilter, anxious, or sometimes even angry. Moreover, people who have a lack of awareness can’t even pinpoint what annoys them most of the time.
One of the dangers of lacking self-awareness comes with how we manage our cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases and our lack of awareness
Cognitive biases are the inherent instincts found in genes. Over thousands of years, we have learnt to survive through three core behaviours – those of flight/fight/freeze. Our ancestors battled wild animals and then each other in their attempts to survive. Many failed, and thus, we as a species learnt.
We learnt when to freeze when confronted by a bear, and when to fight with others.
These instincts form the foundation of our ability to stay alive. Over the years they have evolved to give us a bias towards certain situations and the way we should react. We’ve become so aware of these biases that we’ve given them names and we can describe the impact they have on us.
This is all particularly good, but there is a problem. Without awareness your biases are likely to run amuck, controlling your thoughts and actions. A lack of awareness means you can’t see how your decisions change because of these biases.
Don’t get me wrong. The founding principle behind these biases isn’t bad, it's just that in a modern world they ignore vital information. Data can help us make better decisions.
This is the fuel of risk our biases love to exploit.
Biases without awareness
This brings us back to my poor friend and her decision not to have the 2nd AstraZeneca vaccination.
Without the awareness of those biases, she can’t appreciate what they are doing to her.
They work together, exploiting:
• Her life preservation
• Her failure to grasp probability
• Her lack of ability to put things into context
Let’s break down the biases that are causing this:
Loss aversion in its softest form is one of life preservation biases. No one wants to die; our life is the one thing we don’t want to lose.
This bias sits at the heart of my friend’s dilemma. No other number will outweigh the significance of protecting her life.
We are more aware of what’s happening today, rather than what happened in the past. We place too much emphasis on information that is most immediate to us. In this instance, even though the vaccination is to protect against COVID-19, the blood clot news is more current than the pandemic.
This is how my friend sees this.
Confirmation bias seeks evidence that supports the initial judgement, in this case, the one formed by the loss aversion. Blood clots are dangerous, and the news says there have been seven deaths – possibly linked to the vaccination.
Confirmation bias works its magic. All other sources of information get ignored – regardless of how compelling they are.
An aside to the lollapalooza effect
We are rarely if ever affected by one bias in isolation. We all suffer from the lollapalooza effect. The effect of a combination of biases in operation at the same time. My friend’s example certainly gives us an explanation that fits with this challenging effect.
What the lack of awareness misses
The combination of these biases is particularly telling with my friend. Her desire to preserve life meets the recency bias. The news about the blood clots and the number of deaths triggers her loss aversion, as her bias identifies a risk. The evidence she seeks through confirmation bias comes in the form of the news that seven people have died from blood clots.
The lack of awareness means she ignores further information. Even though it's more relevant and valuable than before. This is where the fuel of risk lies, that our biases love to exploit.
Probability – the understanding of numbers is a skill most of humanity struggles with. Fundamentally, it’s data that smacks against the opinions of the biased.
• COVID 1 death in every 250 cases
• AstraZeneca - 1 death in every 2.5 million doses
• Car accident 1 death in every 25,000 car journeys
It is easy to mock - but cognitive biases are doing this to us all the time. Our biases would prefer us to ignore data; the real numbers that quantify risk because they disagree with our inherited sense of survival.
In this instance, the risk from the jab is 10,000x greater than COVID.
How can we reduce the impact of biases?
For me, the first point to make is this. Cognitive biases are not bad. We wouldn’t be here without them. Furthermore, with the right understanding, we can use our biases as a tool to help us.
Before we get to that though, we need to three things to manage the impact of our biases:
It helps if you know about cognitive biases in the first place.
This must come from education – of learning about the complexities of our thoughts. What must follow is the awareness to see your biases in action. Only then can you understand them and use each one in favour – rather than against you.
Awareness – the power of being aware is the greatest challenge we face. Learning to step beyond your thoughts and see them as thoughts is essential to reducing the impact of your biases.
Becoming self-aware is challenging. It means:
• Checking yourself
• Seeing the big picture
• Not judging your feelings
• Know what your triggers are
• Step away from your comfort zone
• Learning not to judge your feelings
A lack of awareness hasn’t helped my friend. Furthermore, the lollapalooza effect acts to compound the potency of the biases as they work their way into our subconscious thoughts. And that’s the argument; left unchecked, a lack of awareness becomes the fuel of risk our biases love to exploit.
It sounds dramatic.
Think about my friend’s situation for a moment. With awareness, she might have been able to see the loss aversion at work but balanced the risk of death from the blood clots more logically. She might have seen the probabilities and work and understood the risks to her were far greater from not having the jab, than having it.
Awareness would have negated confirmation bias in favour of the more compelling evidence previously mentioned.
This is what a lack of awareness takes away from us.