‘Isn’t this all just cognitive bias?’ Maybe there’s a better way to think about it…

The concept of cognitive bias, most famously confirmation bias, has become very well known in recent decades, especially through research in behavioural economics.

Now cognitive bias is a real and important phenomenon. But it can be used too readily to ‘explain away’ phenomena like those that arise in the study of speech, by attributing them all to subconscious bias, or ‘tricks’ played by our brains. Of course we go into these ideas a lot more in the Unlearning modules, but here are a couple of considerations you might find interesting right away.

First, the word ‘bias’ has negative connotations, suggesting lack of objectivity, sometimes even deliberate prejudice. Now of course at one level it is true that bias is bad and an objective view is better.

But what makes perception objective? The focus on bias suggests that once we get rid of bias, we have access to the really real reality. But is that true? Here’s a short YouTube video (1min 40sec) that will give us something to discuss.

Think you’ve seen this before?

Well, maybe you have, but then again maybe you haven’t. And you probably haven’t thought about the questions we’re going to ask about it (if you have, drop us a line – you’re the kind of person we’d like to know!).

What does it all mean?

The world has so much information in it, we can’t possibly pick it all up. And if we could, we wouldn’t be able to use it all. Cognition has to involve ignoring a lot of information.

It sounds paradoxical, but it’s true: to notice is to ignore!

Now the important thing is: ignoring means ignoring. It doesn’t mean noticing something and then choosing to disregard it.

To experience this – watch the video again, but this time consciously decide to notice the things you accidentally ignored last time. Then when you get to the end, ask yourself the original questions about the basketball players (how many passes they make, etc).

Can you answer the questions? Of course not!

In order to notice the things you previously ignored, you now have to ignore the things you previously noticed. You simply can’t pay attention to everything.

And now for the big question – in which mode of noticing were you biased, and in which were you unbiased or objective?

It’s not really a sensible question. What we noticed or ignored rightly depended on what we were trying to achieve with our observation.

By the way, for those who are touchy about the concept of what’s ‘objective’ or ‘real’, please be assured no one is suggesting that things we don’t notice ‘aren’t really there’ – we go into more discussion on that in Rethink Words.)

Another thing

Now here, just quickly, is a second consideration that arises about cognitive bias

It’s common to think of perception as involving a kind of subconscious filter. As if our brains pick up all the information and then filter out what’s not needed.

In some contexts that is a good analogy, but in others, it can be better to think of perception as involving a kind of searchlight. We actively direct the light to things we already know something about and are interested in, then notice the things it illuminates and ignore those in the darkness.

To understand priming, first attempt to identify what you see in this image, then scroll down to the next image.

So what determines what we choose to direct the light of our attention to?

Surely it is the context in which we are doing the shining (here, the context of what questions we have been asked to seek answers to). Actually, it is not the context as such, but our understanding of the context, but we’ll come back to that later.

A more useful term might be ‘priming’

At Rethink Speech, we prefer the term priming to ‘bias’ for the kind of phenomena we have been experiencing in these Experiencing Speech demonstrations (and go into a lot more in the member modules).

Priming suggests a process that ‘gets you ready’ for perception, a more positive slant – but also more realistic. After all, in the vast majority of cases, priming assists the perceiver to reliable perception and understanding, rather than hindering or distorting accurate perception.

There are also a range of special considerations that have to do with the nature of speech, and the fact that speech represents language, which is a symbolic system.

But to really get to grips with those issues, you need far more understanding about speech, and about words, than we can give you in a few sentences here.

The purpose of this very brief intro is just to show you (if needed) that there is a bit more to Rethink Speech than just another series of demonstrations that you have a ‘biased’ brain that can ‘trick’ you in amazing ways.

Please find more free and open information via the menu above, or check out our learning modules Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning and Rethink Words 101: Unlearning.

Now look back at the earlier image. Notice a change in your perception? See why ‘priming’ is a better analogy than ‘filtering’? Snodgrass et al 1990 Journal of Experimental Psychology