Know Your Mind
Very Interesting|November/December 2020
Our brain uses shortcuts to think quickly but, sometimes, these mental timesavers let us down. Dr Pragya Agarwal discusses the science of cognitive biases, and why it’s more important than ever to understand how they hold sway over our views
Amy Barrett

Why do we have biases?

Dr Pragya Agarwal In evolutionary terms, we are designed to differentiate between people, and make those quick decisions between people who belong to our group, or our tribe, and those who don’t. That was kind of a survival strategy because resources were limited and people had to say, “this is a threat to me or to the limited resources, and so this person is an out-group.”

We make these quick decisions about whether this person or object is a threat, or whether we should fear them. These kinds of in-group, out-group demarcations are made quickly, because we have to process so much information. There’s no time to take every bit of information on a rational, logical level. So, a lot of this is processed on the basis of our previous experiences. We make these quick matches between our previous experiences: say, in the past, this kind of person or situation was a threat to us, so that is what this will be. That’s how these immediate stereotypes are formed. We rapidly make demarcations and distinctions and labels, as a way of processing information really quickly before we can take it to a rational level in our brain.

Are there benefits to this?

Absolutely. Say I go shopping and want to choose a brand of cereal in the supermarket. If I took every bit of information around me and weighed it up and tried to make an independent decision based on clear analysis, then there’s not enough time. I would be stuck with every decision in the world.

But there are obviously negative sides to it in certain situations and where these decisions actually make an impact. They have life-or-death impact. They’re more important than just choosing a brand of cereal.

How does social media fit into this?

Some of the discourse around biases and prejudices can become quite heated because they can feel like a judgment on our whole identity. We say that you are biased, so you are a bad person.

What I’m trying to do in my book is, by giving scientific evidence and bringing in different case studies and theories, to help us understand that we can all unlearn some of our toxic behaviours. Yes, social media is creating echo chambers and filter bubbles. Social media is strengthening the sense of belonging in a particular community, that “I belong in a particular tribe, so I cannot engage with anybody who does not belong in that”. Again, we’re falling back on primal in-group, out-group tendencies through these mediums. But I also think that these divides are being reinforced by the climate in which we live. If a marginalised community starts talking about and pushing back against prejudices, then there will be further divides initially. But having more evidence, and open-minded, nonjudgmental platforms for these discussions is important.

Tell us about the types of biases.

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