Crossword Puzzles, Biases, and Snow
I started writing this post on a Sunday morning while looking out at the softly falling snow and contemplating cognitive (thinking) biases. Yup, really, that is what was going through my mind.
I deal with biases a lot in my coaching work.
Everyone has them. They allow our brain to conserve energy and enable us to make rapid-fire decisions. They helped me make life-and-death decisions and diagnoses in my work as a critical care pediatrician. So, sometimes biases are good. And, when our brain initially developed them, it was for a good (or so it seemed at the time) reason. But, they are not always good. And, sometimes, they are downright counterproductive.
I was thinking about biases at this moment due to some frustration I had earlier while I worked on the Sunday crossword puzzle in my local newspaper. “Hmm,” you say, “what do biases have to do with solving a crossword?” Well, I realized that once I put a letter in a square, my brain assumes that it is the correct letter. Sometimes, it blocks my brain from placing any other letters in that square, and I fumble around because I can’t see the actual correct answer, no matter how hard I try.
Recognizing that this was happening allowed me to force my brain to start over, and then, voilà! I was suddenly able to see the correct letter and recognize my initial error. Therefore, typically, when I am doing a “hard” crossword puzzle, I start with a light-colored pen which gives me the ability to change it several times before I eventually write in the correct letters in a black or dark purple bold ink. Or I write out a set of blanks that I can fill in without being biased by what might be a wrong, but very attractive answer.
We are so accustomed to recognizing patterns in words that we can read and make sense of sentences even if words are misspelled or have missing letters. Did you know that we do the same in other aspects of our lives? If we detect something that generally occurs as part of a pattern, we assume that the rest is there, even if we cannot see it. Sometimes this “pattern recognition” can make us feel (or actually be) stuck.
Stuck is not fun.
Stuck is hard to get past.
When I get “stuck” doing a challenging crossword puzzle, it helps me to go away and return to it later in the day or even later in the week, with fresh eyes and what you might call a “fresh perspective.” Sometimes, I have to push away the pattern that my brain expects so I can see what is happening with fresh eyes.
This is all fine when dealing with something relatively unimportant to life, such as working a crossword puzzle, but what about when these biases show up in our daily work or home lives?
How do we even know they are there?
That is a fundamental question because cognitive (thinking) biases are hard to recognize by their very nature. When I teach medical students how to think about a patient’s particular diagnosis, I encourage them NEVER to be content with the first possibility that comes into their minds. I teach them always to ask themselves, “and what else?” so they can add to their list of hypotheses. You see, the first answer is almost always the result of biased thinking, and, while it MAY be correct, many times, it is NOT the correct answer to the underlying cause of the patient’s complaint.
Many of us know, deep down inside, what circumstances tend to initiate a biased response from our brain. We may know, for example, that when a particular co-worker walks into our cubicle or office, they are likely to say something that will trigger a predictable response from us. Perhaps they are likely to criticize our latest work effort, and we, in turn, are likely to become defensive and may not listen to what they have to say, even if it has a grain of truth in it. This bias can become a liability when we become triggered before they even say anything.
If you think about times you have had such reactions, you will start to recognize how such biased responses feel. And recognizing these moments is the key to stopping the habitual biased reactions from occurring. Your brain is programmed to protect you from being eaten by a tiger, and unfortunately, it doesn’t always know the difference between the risk of the tiger eating you and the potential slight that your co-worker may offer when they walk into your office.
So, when you feel that sensation, when your gut feels uneasy, your heart starts racing, or your jaw clenches, you can bet that your brain has sent the body signals to be on the alert for danger. That can be your cue to interrupt the habitual, biased response. That can be your cue to take a breath and consider your alternatives. Perhaps to hear out your colleague before you rush to be defensive. You can put on a different pair of glasses to see the situation in a different light. Not the tried and (not really) true perspective of your biased brain, but the new and open-minded perspective of an asset that you invariably have, but is hiding behind all the habits that have accumulated in your brain over time.
A lot of the work I do with my coaching clients enables them to change from bias to asset, from habit to a new perspective. It requires the client to become aware they are operating in a biased fashion and then stop that component of their reflexive thinking. The work becomes even more effective when I can help them identify the actual types of brain habits they have, and as soon as they feel the tell-tale sensation that a cognitive bias is active, make a shift to help their brain re-focus on a more optimal way of thinking.
When I work with clients interested in unlocking the limitless potential of their best ways of thinking, we use the Axiogenics™ Self-Leadership 1-2-3 process and the V/Q (value quotient) profile so they can make tomorrow better than today.
I'd be delighted to help you explore your best ways of thinking and leave your negative habits of mind behind.
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To add more value to your life ask yourself this question every day: What choice can I make and action can I take in this moment to create the greatest net value? Then take the free VQ (value quotient) assessment to start your journey with Axiogenics, and learn how to consistently play your "A" game.