Making Good Decisions, Part III—Using self-awareness to reduce unconscious bias.
In my last blog entry I talked about how our unconscious biases, formed during childhood, can affect our decisions in the present, both positively and negatively. Research confirms that our gut reactions are almost always our best ones, but sometimes fail us because of internalized biases. These biases may be tied to personality characteristics, body type, voice, or just about anything that might remind you of someone in your past who you hold dearly or disdain. To the extent that this bias “kicks in,” unconsciously, it has the potential to distort reality and produce an intuitive response that has essentially been contaminated.
So how are any of us to make good decisions when, by definition, these biases are outside of awareness? The general advice is to trust your gut reaction, knowing that sometimes it will fail you. Although I must insert the obvious caveat—that a perfect, or even near-perfect decision-making record is impossible, consistently making pretty good decisions is very possible. (For those of you who make extensive “pro and con” lists, they have been shown to be ineffective. This is not to say that pondering a decision rather than making it impulsively does not have value. But, generally speaking, the harder a person works on making a decision, the worse it gets.)
The key to making better decisions is getting control of biases by bringing them into awareness. Research has shown that self-awareness can have an enormous impact on biases, be they racial, gender, age, or based on likes and dislikes emanating from experiences with family (the aforementioned transference). As you might expect, I advocate psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, focusing heavily on awareness of everything from the slightest emotional reaction to dreams and visceral reactions.
When I work with patients I routinely observe and note their nonverbalized emotional expressions, which are registered on their faces, and also note their body language. I encourage them to focus on awareness rather than change at the outset of treatment, because most of the important changes will occur, spontaneously or with conscious effort, as a result of greater awareness in the moment. This intellectual awareness, combined with the working through in the present of emotions resulting from these biases, helps create change.
Research on the unconscious reveals that values and biases are stored there, but can be altered if brought into awareness. Most of these studies have focused on racial bias, but the implications for other learned attitudes are clear. Payne, et al. quoted in Hassein, Ulman, & Bargh (2005) say,
“As suggested by the psychodynamic tradition, achieving awareness of a mental process can provide a basis for controlling it. An experiment has shown that people can harness their biases strategically if they are made aware of them (p. 407)”
Although you might imagine that this process seems rather simple and straightforward, it is and it isn’t. Because our brains lay down neural pathways that are automatically followed when stimulated, be it a familiar smell (Mom’s cookies in the oven) or a stranger’s touch (for some a fearful reminder of sexual trauma), it takes time to bring feelings and thoughts into awareness, talk about them and gain perspective, and then work through the emotions that come with them. The end result is a new neural pathway that is not dominated by bias, and becomes integrated into all levels of conscious, thereby becoming part of what we call “intuition” or “gut reactions.” As I have stated in earlier posts, change requires much repetition over time and is not a quick fix. But for those who wish to truly know themselves and harness the power of their unconscious minds, an in-depth treatment offers the possibility of not only greater self-acceptance and peace of mind, but also the potential for making better decisions and gaining greater self-confidence and security.