Perhaps the most obvious types of biases that involve taking in information in a biased way can be demonstrated by the old warning against judging a book by its cover. Manipulators make good use of this, and I wish that they were easy to spot as liars like the story of Pinocchio and the “tell” of his growing nose. The best con artists are the ones who fleece you, and if they move on, you end up thanking them for all they’ve done for you and miss them when they’ve departed. We misjudge them as trustworthy because we like what we see on the surface. We can also limit our thinking and expectations, too.
Saliency and Stereotypes (CRI #6)
Saliency Biases are actually a broad category of several types of biases by which we human creatures tend to make quick judgements based on something’s most noticeable or most “salient” elements. These things may actually be completely contrary to what is true and important.
Emotions, stereotypes, and prejudice have much to do with what we will even allow ourselves to notice. We may subconsciously tune those factors out, or if something challenging does pierce through into our minds, we can just shift attention away from it by dismissing it. We may also notice something that we find challenging, and to protect ourselves from the stress, we can make derogatory, general judgements. This reminds me of the famed picture of Sophia Loren checking out Jayne Mansfield’s often poorly covered decolletage. You might think that Loren would have nothing to fear, but the spirit of competition never seems to be lacking among women who compare themselves with one another.
Needless to say, I chose Dolly Parton to demonstrate the bias. In an old interview, she once talked openly about how pretty she thought that the town prostitutes were and wondered why this seemed so scandalous. I don’t know that you could find a sweeter, more down-to-earth person who has earned success and respect in so many professions – and I thought of her as an excellent example of misjudging a book by its cover – or it’s cleavage. I recall how readily people discounted her when I was growing up in the 1970s by taking only that aspect into account.
Saliency can also affect outlook and other types of choices. At this time last week, people in my area anticipated flooding, depending on which direction a tropical depression decided to take. All of the local news stations and my friends talked about flooding. If I had focused on this and fell into a saliency bias because of how many news reports I’d heard, I could have misjudged their significance by altering my weekend plans. The storm ended up taking a different direction, and had I taken specific action to ensure against an impending flood (such as sandbagging my patio door), I would have wasted my effort.
The Status Quo bias can also cause a response similar to that of salience if we allow our imagination about outcomes to be limited – judging the book by the only cover we’ve known in the past or expect. For those who have had quite limited experience in life, it is very much a “thinking outside the box” which is nearly impossible if your world lacked examples that showed you vast possibilities. How can a blind man conceive of color if they’ve never seen anything before?
If a person had never seen a fully grown butterfly or a moth, had never observed its life cycle, or had never been told of such a creature that passes through such different stages of change, would they identify a caterpillar as the very same insect as the butterfly? We can limit people or systems and what we imagine about their outcomes in much the same way. Certain options may occur because a person has never seen a full spectrum of choices for themselves or others, or their choices or their autonomy of choice may be punished when they are young. (They many not have learned to use choice with ease apart from the system that did their choosing for them.)
Sometimes, we limit our own options because we feel uncomfortable about what a choice might bring. Risk brings about fear about outcomes. If reading from a “life script” of family dysfunction, feeling FOG (Fear, Obligation, and Guilt) because of what others expect or demand of you, the cost of becoming something that deviates from the script may be too high or unrealistic. If rejection deprives you of survival outside of the your family, growing beyond the Status Quo Bias may keep you bound.
We can also limit the expectations that we have for others because of our own fears or intimidation. Consider again the picture of Jayne Mansfield and the idea of putting her in a particular category or box just to make yourself feel better, limiting the competition. What if the “least likely to succeed” predictor from a high school yearbook turns out to be abysmally inaccurate? What if a co-worker has a very successful, very different facet of their lives outside of the workplace that you know nothing about? Would you scoff or ridicule them to hear about it, especially if you didn’t think much of their work? Would you scoff because you felt uncomfortable and ashamed of your own lack of insight and disbelief?
Impact of Misleading Book Covers
Both the Saliency and Status Quo biases can dramatically affect our interpretation of the data we select as well as the way we process that information, especially if we feel intimidated or threatened by the situation or consequences of the outcomes. You can learn to reach beyond the mundane baseline that defines what you understand as common behavior – for yourself and for others. You can learn to aim higher for yourself and to reach higher, even though doing so involves risk. You can practice at taking calculated risks to gain more ease with them over time.
By developing your own sense of self and become more honest about those things which you control and those that you don’t, your fears diminish. Becoming more aware of your own feelings, you can learn to tolerate discomfort so that you can brave your own fears. You can then look beneath the feeling to find the unrealistic and inaccurate rules about life which have shaped your expectations so that you can adjust them. As you learn to have healthier and more balanced perspectives that favor healthy optimism and beneficial risk, you find that you can extend hope and encouragement to others as well as yourself. You can give people trustworthy wings that will hold them up as they fly, and you can stop trimming theirs and your own.
Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.
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