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Three cognitive barriers you need to overcome

Brain iS edited
Emma Cowan on April 29, 2014 - 10:30 pm in In Depth

The Telegraph reported recently that the most accurate simulation of the human brain ever has been carried out, but a single second’s worth of activity took one of the world’s largest supercomputers 40 minutes to calculate. The human brain is a powerful, amazing and multifaceted tool, capable of envisioning complex civilisations complete with rules to guide them, complicated engineering projects, astounding art and so much more.

Terry Cromey

Terry Cromey

It’s also capable of thwarting our performance at times, particularly when it comes to cognitive biases (which we all have). Cognitive and behavioural psychotherapist Terry Cromey outlines three of the most common of these affecting workplace performance and a few tips on how to think differently to overcome them.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias, the tendency to favour your own opinion and selectively seek to justify it, afflicts pretty much everybody. It’s often a natural result of our inclination to better understand things by making hypotheses and supporting our ideas with evidence. The tendency to fixate on a singular viewpoint or explanation, however, can sometimes lead to business myopia.

Confirmation bias can reveal itself in a number of ways, including belief polarisation (when two parties see the same evidence but interpret it differently to  become even more entrenched in their viewpoint) and irrational primacy (a fixation on information discovered early in a series of events and a neglect of later, equally pertinent information). This latter can be especially prevalent with new start-ups or project leaders, who need to believe in their idea to see it through but all too often become fixated on old information dating back to inception.

The first step to reducing the impact of confirmation bias in your thinking is to acknowledge its existence (now you know!). Take conscious action to reduce the impact by always inviting feedback and criticism and always listening to new ideas. Don’t just ask, “How did I do?” since this will inevitably lead to a the answer you want to hear (e.g. “You did great!”). Instead, push your work colleagues to provide you with constructive feedback by asking something like, “What do you think I could have done differently or better?” When you ask someone “What’s your view on that?” really try to listen with an open mind to what they have to say.

The Bandwagon Effect

This is a classic human bias: the greater the number of people who do or believe something, the more likely you (and others) are to join the bandwagon, in spite of knowing the thinking is flawed or that your view is different. Of course, this can be a great thing in the right circumstances – just look at really successful marketing and advertising campaigns and what they can do for sales. There are a couple of potential downsides though.

It’s all too easy for you to dismiss the power of the bandwagon effect thinking you’re too smart to fall for it, but here’s the thing, psychology studies show that, in the right circumstances, as much as 75% of people will give answers that they know are false, simply because others around them have given the same incorrect answer .

In a workplace situation, bandwagon effect challenges come when employees are unwilling or unable to speak out about inefficiencies or even illicit activities, hence the scarcity of corporate whistle-blowers. Now that could be a problem for your business.

On a personal level, again, being aware of your inevitable propensity to submit to bandwagon effect can help you to overcome it. But that alone might not be enough and often, it’s the culture of an organisation that limits the negative impact. The notion that everyone should have their own opinion and a say in the direction of the business may be a step too far – that in itself can be a form of ‘groupthink’ (where the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome). Generally, most business need a clear structure and line of command. However, a business is not an army, so there has to be a middle ground, where the structure is clear, yet individuals feel empowered to have and to express their opinions.

Functional Fixedness

If your business is about creativity, or even wants to encourage lateral thinking, functional fixedness is likely to be one barrier you need to overcome. No matter how imaginative we are, it’s very difficult for us to see past the original or obvious use of things.

The ‘candle experiment’ is a classic demonstration of functional fixedness. A group of people was given a box of thumbtacks, matches and a candle, and asked to affix the candle on the wall to prevent wax from dripping on a table beneath it. While some subjects attempted very inventive solutions, most of them did not recognize that they could use the tacks to hold the box against the wall and then place the candle within the box. Once the tacks were removed from the box, however, people had an easier time seeing it as a potential holder for the candle.

Why was it so hard for people to see the box as a potential solution, rather than simply a container that held the thumbtacks? The fact is, functional fixedness reflects our brain’s attempt to understand the purpose of the resources around us through categorisation.

How can you overcome functional fixedness? Some studies have shown that people who have spent time living abroad are better able to ‘think outside the box’ and can be more creative in their solutions to problems. Another way to help overcome the constriction of functional fixedness is to spend time with very young children (under the age of seven). Younger children don’t experience the same constraint of functional fixedness, which is a learned trait, and their use of objects is not determined by the intended purpose of those objects.

Don’t be afraid to consider unusual ways to use the resources already at your disposal! Not everything needs to be recycled to become functional again!

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