Cognitive biases affect our behavior in pretty much any aspect of life.
They are a kind of mental shortcut which our brain uses for the sake of reaching conclusions faster and more efficiently.
Stereotyping, for example, is a cognitive bias which all of us have heard of before. As part of stereotyping, we are making assumptions about somebody’s behavior on the basis of information that we have learned about a group that he or she belongs to.
When you hear that somebody is ‘Asian’ for example, it is likely that your brain immediately attaches certain traits to him or her right away. This could be a large variety of things such as shyness, collective behavior, indirect way of speaking and so on and so forth.
You are not making a conscious judgment about him or her, but rather it is something that your brain does automatically on the basis of information you have been exposed to before.
Cognitive biases generally work in this way. Your brain will automatically use them and you can not really do much about that. But what you can do is to remain aware of them, and catch yourself when they are affecting your intercultural communication in a negative way.
1. Familiarity Bias
Familiarity bias, as described by Joseph Shaules in his book “the intercultural mind“, is the brain’s tendency towards things that are familiar to us. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of problems in foreign countries, where a lot of things are different and new by definition.
For example, I have noticed that here in Iran, my eyes are constantly drawn towards any text that is written in the Latin alphabet. Because I am still not 100% comfortable, it always feels like a pleasant change when something is written with Latin characters. Even if this text is written in a language that I do not speak at all.
The problem is that if we are giving in to the familiarity bias most of the time, then we are essentially becoming blind for potential learning opportunities that we are exposed to in another cultural environment.
The familiarity bias makes us seek out information that we already know, speak in a language that we are comfortable with, spend time with people that are similar to us, and generally make us lazy in our thinking by explaining situations in ways that are familiar to us.
2. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias describes the tendency of our brain to search for information and focus on details in a way that our pre-existing ideas about something are being confirmed.
We may have read something about a certain group of people somewhere, or listened to the ideas a friend had about that particular group of people. Then, when we are moving to the other country, we are searching for behavior from the local people or overly focus on these particular behaviors in order to confirm these ideas which we had in our minds.
This is a really dangerous cognitive bias when it comes to interacting with people from other cultures. The reason why it is so dangerous is that a lot of the information we are getting about other cultures is so terribly uninformed and incomplete.
We arrive at this other country, get the feeling that our pre-existing ideas about the country are being confirmed, and then let our learning process stop right there.
3. Selective Perception Bias
Selective perception bias is the tendency to ignore stimuli or quickly forget about stimuli which are:
- causing us discomfort
- go against our prior beliefs
While interacting with people from other cultures, it is natural that we are constantly exposed to behaviors, ways of thinking and beliefs which have either of the two above-mentioned effects.
Consequently, our brain is effectively ignoring quite a large number of the potentially important information that we need in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the other culture.
So, what are the next steps?
Again, our brain uses cognitive biases automatically without us necessarily noticing.
However, we can catch ourselves when we are being affected by them. On a regular basis, we should simply ask ourselves: “Is it possible that any cognitive bias has been holding me back in this particular situation?”
In fact, it is not so hard to break free from these cognitive biases. All it takes is to notice being affected by them, and then to move our decision-making process from the unconscious- to the conscious level.
Lastly, I would like to hear from you: have you faced a situation where you have been affected by a cognitive bias? What was the situation? How have you resolved it? And, are there any other cognitive biases you know of that affect intercultural communication?
Lastly, I would like to let you know that Intercultural Mindset Magazine, a community of people helping each other on their journey towards becoming truly intercultural, is now accepting submissions for articles to be featured in it.
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