Reality Bias: How Our Tendency to Simplify Causes Us to Miss Out

We all tend as human beings to generate a coherent explanation of events that simplify reality to reduce anxiety and allow decision-making and action. This is what scientists call “reality bias.” Some say we can eliminate this bias by systematically improving our capacity to see them and take a step forward to understand the world better. But does that really make sense?

The Use of Mental Models and Our Ability to See Them

Some studies tie this to mental models, shields between reality and our perception of reality. A metaphor could be the lenses of our spectacles, from which all the visual information of the world comes before it reaches our eyes – when using a coloured lens, we see the world not as it is but influenced by characteristics given by our lenses too.

Lenses are not bad in themselves, but when we’re not aware of them, they might lead us to assume a world that could lead us to make ill-informed decisions. For example, if we’re trying to solve a problem and our mental model is too simplistic, we might fail to see other possible solutions right before us.

We all have different lenses shaped by our individual experiences, beliefs, and values. And these lenses can change over time – as we learn new things and have new experiences, our mental models evolve too.

From this perspective, the solution given to our inability to see the world as it is can quickly become a matter of realising we all operate from mental models and that we can deliberately change them if we want to.

According to this view, we can do this by learning about different perspectives and ways of looking at the world and constantly challenging our beliefs and assumptions. Only then can we start to see reality more clearly; only then might we be able to catch a glimpse of the world as it is.

See Case Study: Reality Bias: The Mother of All Cognitive Biases

Depth of Perception: The World is More than We Can See

So I’d argue we can stretch our perception by relating to the world and to others who see the world differently from us.

And also argue that our “mental model” expansion is the actualisation of our internal conversations from the perturbations by external stimuli. One stimulus could be the world responding in a way that does not confirm our predictions, and another could be the consideration of other narratives brought by other “mental models”.

But would that be enough if we could stretch our perception to the fullest and catch a glimpse of the world as it is?

Perhaps it could be our first step towards enlightenment, but still seeing the world as it is means one person seeing it, a particular person at a specific point in time. And because the world is more than what we can see, perhaps more than what we can ever distinguish, it would be a richer point o view, but not the whole picture.

“Everything Said is Said by Someone”

Maturana & Valela, 1987

There’s an infinite amount of perspectives and, therefore, the so-called “mental models” out there, and no matter how many different ones we learn about, there will always be more. The world is complex and constantly changing, and our mental models are only a simplified representation of it. Perhaps all our perceptions are an aggregate of partial pictures of the world that is either good enough or we just don’t know better. :)

So, even if we could see the world as it is, we would still only see a small part of it. And that’s why reality bias is something we need to accept as part of being human. It’s not something we can eliminate, but perhaps it is something we can become aware of and temper over time.

See Everything Said is Said by Someone

Accepting We Are Always Biased

We tend to see the world in black and white. This is called dichotomous thinking, a form of simplification that allows us to make quick decisions without weighing all the options. But, unfortunately, this kind of thinking also causes us to miss a lot of nuance and complexity.

Dichotomous thinking is a form of cognitive bias, defined as “a systematic error in thinking that leads to inaccurate judgments”. We all have cognitive biases that impact how we see the world and make decisions.

There are many different types of cognitive biases, but some of the most common are:

  1. Confirmation bias is when we only pay attention to information that confirms our beliefs.
  2. Perceptual bias is when we fail to perceive an unexpected stimulus in plain sight.
  3. Anchoring bias is when we give too much importance to the first piece of information we receive on a topic.
  4. Framing bias is when we interpret information in a way that suits our interests or agenda.

Please search for other unconscious bias online and how it leads to poor decision-making. For example, perhaps your own decision-making process is influenced by some common types: hindsight bias; bandwagon bias; logical fallacy; status quo bias; fundamental attribution error; overconfidence bias; among others.

These biases are often unconscious, so we’re unaware we’re doing it. But they can have a significant impact on the way we see reality.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to decide whether or not to vote for a particular candidate in an election. You might only pay attention to information that confirms your existing beliefs about the candidate and ignore anything that contradicts it. This is confirmation bias in action.

Or let’s say you’re trying to decide whether or not to buy a new car. The salesperson tells you the car’s base price but doesn’t mention the additional fees and taxes. You anchor your decision on that initial price and don’t consider the true cost of the car. This is anchoring bias in action.

Cognitive biases can lead us to make bad decisions and prevent us from exploring different aspects of reality. If we’re only ever exposed to information that confirms our existing beliefs, we’ll never learn anything new. We’ll never challenge our assumptions or question our worldview. We’ll be trapped in our little bubble, and the world will seem much more straightforward than it is.

All these tendencies and biases prevent us from exploring a complete aspect of reality and considering more possibilities further away from the status quo. Instead, the results are more of the same and tend to generate a perception of a “one size fits all” approach, even when the context is different and other explanations might be more appropriate.

See Inattentional Blindness: Looking Without Seeing

Conclusion

The reality bias is a cognitive bias that refers to humans’ tendency to simplify events to reduce anxiety and allow for decision-making and action. This tendency causes individuals to fail to perceive unexpected stimuli or only see things that support their chosen explanation, missing to accurately assess the situation.

The result is a perception of a “one size fits all” approach, even when the context is different, and other explanations or new possibilities might be more appropriate.

The reality bias can have dangerous consequences if it prevents individuals from exploring a complete aspect of reality and considering more possibilities. This can lead to biases in decision-making, missed opportunities and a lack of understanding of our world.

What do you think about the reality bias? Do you believe your own biases might have impacted your life and everyday decisions? Share your thoughts!

Read More on Cognitive Bias