Saturday 29 March 2014

I know because I am...

Have you ever argued with the person who refused to accept your opinion? Have you ever had a friend whose opinions were always strange and you simply couldn't agree with them? Well there is a reason behind both of these questions and that is what I want to discuss today.

Since discussion, in my opinion, is a communication between two or more people trying to find a common ground, a solution to a problem or explain certain things, I find it heavily irritating to talk to people who are not willing to listen. In discussion, you spend roughly half of the time listening and half of the time speaking. Although for some people this seems to be impossible task. In my experience this is due to the inability to admit ones failure in not knowing everything. Well, there is nothing wrong with not knowing everything and it is completely acceptable state in which everybody should find himself or herself. Even Socrates some years ago said: "I know that I know nothing." And to this day it is quote I am referencing very often. So how comes people are unable to follow this simple yet very intelligent quote and admit that by listening, they are gaining more knowledge, therefore growing and bettering themselves?

Cognitive bias

Lets look at cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is distortion in ones view or judgement. There is great many of them and all have one thing in common, they make us think irrationally. They make us believe in things that are not necessary true. And although they are some that explain points I am going to make in this post, let us start with how we perceive these biases, or even better, how we actually don't perceive them.

We don't perceive them as something that is affecting us. Simply said. Of all the negative biases you can think of, imagine how many of them are affecting those around you, your friends and their different opinions when it comes to religion or politics. Some seem more affected, some less. And now think of how many are affecting you. It most likely is less, after all you are aware of them, otherwise you would not notice them in others. That makes you rather highly resistant if not entirely immune to them. Actually it doesn't. That is the interesting part. Many psychologist and researches based their work on this subject and they conducted enough tests to come to conclusions. People tend to perceive their opinion as free of any bias while they are able to see bias in opinion of others [2]. We believe that our personal experience in our unique lives let us form deeper insight rather than being affected by bias. This can be seen in everyday life and in interactions between people. If you consider yourself to be right and thus bias free, you will also consider all those who oppose your opinion to be wrong and possibly biased. This can be even more difficult by the fact that most of the people don't admit or even realize they are affected by bias even after this fact is proven to them.

This was tested and conclusion was gained by using a survey [2] in which subjects were to compare effect of bias on them and on others. After they filled in this information with results that confirmed the statements above and that they were affected by bias known as "better than average" effect, meaning majority of subjects rated themselves better than average, these subjects were tested to see if they realized this fact about themselves and only about 25% confirmed that they had. The rest claimed the comparison they filled in before were correct or even that they were actually modest and that they are better than they submitted.

Two people having different opinions doesn't necessary mean only one of them is biased. Yet, that is what people think is happening. Sometimes it actually might be you who is biased way more than the other person, or you are simply both biased and because of that you are not sharing same opinion. After all, we all have our preferences and our ideas about world. And we would very much liked to keep them. Because that is who we are and a lot of times our opinions are the key fragment in our decisions in who we want to become.

Self-enhancement and self-protection

We all have our desires, our interests. Sometimes we just overdo them a little bit. Take for example your friend, a popular fella, who always has some neat stories he can tell to lots of people, including some complete strangers. And that one story in which you were actually involved and you can clearly remember that it happened quite differently than what he is telling them. Well this is due to something called self-enhancement and self-protection. It's a bias that alters your perception or memory of events and situations based on your interests while trying to keep your self-esteem as high as possible. It has its usefulness but it also has some very bad side effects.

Go back to your school days and try to remember some of the exams you took alongside with your classmates. After the results are handed some of your fellow students were happy and said they performed very well, that this exam was well written and they are happy with their performance and abilities they gained in the course. Others were not so happy and they complained that the exam was invalid way of testing knowledge, that it was flawed and unfair. Is that familiar to you? It definitely is to me. This is one example of both self-enhancement and self-protection.

Self-enhancement is a way of making sure you are successful in your interests by giving yourself more credit [1]. Not only would successful students say that they succeeded because of their performance and ability, they would also exaggerate a little bit about it. The same thing happens with your popular friend who makes up stories or alters existing ones to exaggerate his involvement. His interest is to be popular and that is exactly what he is after. Whether it is by making ones stories look more majestic than they were or by picking the battles one engages in. If you pick your opponents carefully, you can be sure that you pick only those, that you know, will lose to you.

Self-protection is more of a damage control that makes sure you are not failing as hard as you are [1]. That is why those who fail exam claim that it was invalid. Because that way they don't take the responsibility, they are not the wrong one. Have you ever noticed how people tend to talk about success as hard work that requires lot of effort and ability but when they mention failure, it is due to bad luck, impossible odds or overly high task difficulty? That is self-enhancement and self-protection speaking. These both make sure that we exaggerate our virtues and minimize our shortcomings. And it doesn't even need to happen on purpose.

Sometimes you don't even know that the story you are telling happened differently. How come that your friend remembers it differently? These two parts of "self-serving bias" can work behind your back. Sometimes your very memory will tell you that you handled situation better than you did, you don't even need to try to make that up [1]. And because it happens behind our backs, it is so difficult to detect sometimes.

Also effects tend to be little bit different on different people. Imagine two different men, one has all his interests grouped up together, for example guitar player in rock band whose interests are being good in music, being good in what he does and being able to support his family. Now imagine he will get fired by his friends. It will affect all of his interests because they are all grouped. It will mean he is not that good in music, it will mean he cannot do his job properly, and without a job, he cannot support his family. Everything he hold dear just fell apart.

Now an example of second man, someone who has his interests separated. An IT developer who likes to play guitar and wants to be good father to his children. If this person gets fired from IT, it will hurt his interest in being good in IT. But it will not hurt his interests in playing guitar and in being good father. He can enhance these to keep his self-esteem intact. He might tell you "yeah, I was fired but now at least, I have more time to play my guitar and be with my children."

There is also one interesting thing to note, being overly defensive of your interests doesn't mean you will completely ignore all of the negative feedback and try to make up some nice stories about yourself. No, negative feedback is openly accepted and remembered when it servers it purpose, when it helps you in your interest. So even if somebody tells you, you are not doing that well, but this information helps you in doing better, you will remember it and you will build upon it because in the end, it will positively influence your interest and that is why all of this is happening in the first place. This of course depends on the way you are receiving this negative feedback. There are different rules for telling somebody that there performance is not that good, or that they need to learn more. If these rules are ignored, it will all come out as insults even if it was never intended to sound like that. It is important to know how to "sell" negative feedback to people so they don't get upset, but that is story for another time.


When I see a blog or am part of discussion with someone who starts with the words "I am 40 years old mother of 2 children..." or "I am young man who completed two colleges and wrote fifteen books...", that is the time when I stop listening. For me, that person shut his or hers ears the moment he or she started talking and will not try to open them again. This opening ceremony is the act of telling your opponents that you know better because you are... something. Doesn't really matter what. You are 40 years old mother of 2 children, well that is good for you, but I know far more about compiling java project with connector to MySQL database and when I tell you that you can't use it on your microwave, well you can't. When you tell me you are young man who completed two colleges and wrote fifteen books, well that is good for you, but that is not relevant information for me when we are talking about politics. Unless those books are about politics and you wish me to read them, which was not the case.

After reading this post you should realize that there are different biases that interfere with our perception of reality, whether it is the world we live in today or the world we lived in 20 years ago. There is far more of these biases that I have courage to name, but now you know that they exist. Not only that, you should understand that considering yourself to be immune to them is not correct. Doesn't matter how many books you wrote or how many children you have. Nobody is immune. Although they are part of us, who we are and what our ideas are, but that doesn't mean they are always correct and that no other people matter.

We believe our opinion is the correct one and we feel that we need to let others know it, and because world is full of opinions we sometimes make these claims at the beginning to show why our opinions are the correct ones, and why no others are valid. The thing we don't realize is that the more we do this, the more we are actually biased. Because we are not interested in others, we live in our shell believing we are the best. We are the biased ones, not those who learn, improve and form new and better opinions because of it. If you want to make a valid point, to make a compelling argument, then make it by making it. Don't tell others why they should listen to you. If your argument is good, they will listen. And if they won't, it wouldn't matter anyway. It might be painful sometimes but make sure that when you are done talking, you will listen to their arguments because maybe, they make more sense than you want to admit.

You don't grow by ignoring the world, you grow by noticing it.


  1. Alicke, M., Sedikides, C.: Self-Enhancement and Self-Protection: What They Are and What They Do, (2009)
  2. Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., Ross, L.: The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others, (2002)

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