Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Cognitive bias and community resilience

Have you ever tried to convince your boss, your spouse, or someone else about something?  And found your blood pressure rising as you thought to yourself “Why can’t he / she keep an open mind?”  You may have been a victim of the other person’s cognitive biases (of course there’s always the possibility that you were wrong!).

When we receive new information, we try to fit it into our existing mental models – the patterns that we have formed to help us organize information.  These patterns are important and useful because they help us rapidly respond to warnings.  However, sometimes our existing mental models act as barriers to incoming information, especially if the new information doesn’t fit into an existing pattern very well.  This is known as cognitive bias.

Community leaders are human.  They are just as subject to cognitive bias as anyone else.  As a result they may under- or overestimate risks facing the community, or ignore potential solutions to the community’s problems, or accept “solutions” that simply won’t work.  Thus, cognitive bias can have profound impacts on a community’s resilience.  In this post, I want to explore some common kinds of cognitive bias in a community context.

Perhaps the most important kinds of cognitive bias are what I call “delusions of competence.”  These appear in many different guises.  Sometimes we ignore new information because we don’t trust the source.  The messenger may be our political opponents (For example, a recent paper found that most Republicans who didn’t believe in climate change said that it was being touted by liberal politicians (take Al Gore, please) as a primary cause of their disbelief.  The state of denial by progressive politicians [now there’s an oxymoron!] of the truth of recent revelations of Iranian nuclear misdeeds may have a similar cause.).  We may think we’re smarter than the messenger.  Or better at making decisions, or at predicting the future.  However it appears, this type of cognitive bias usually causes us to discount or ignore new information.  It introduces blind spots in our thinking.

Another type of cognitive bias arises because humans are social animals.  Most of us want to be part of “the group” (whatever it is).  If (noboby/everybody) thinks X then we should think the same.  Or we let our instincts be overridden by trying to be politically correct, or polite.  Or we respond to the confidence exhibited by a squeaky wheel.  This type of cognitive bias often ends up in a sort of community groupthink and misdirected actions.

A third type of cognitive bias is “the Tyranny of the Status Quo.”  Often, we tend to value what we have so much that we will do almost anything to avoid change.  This kind of bias can be summed up in something my friend Jim Kelley once said to me:  “People will only change when the pain of not changing becomes too great.”  This type of cognitive bias can also show up in more subtle ways.  We may tend to downplay some new information because it either conflicts with or pushes aside what we are concerned with now.  Or, rather than recognizing a new pattern, we may try to force fit new information into an old mould.

Confirmation bias is closely related.  In this case, we pay attention to new information only if it buttresses previously held opinions.  This is particularly pernicious because we are flooded with so much information and so many studies that come to contradictory conclusions that it is way too easy to fall into this trap.  It seems that Climate Change Zealots on both sides are especially prone to this.

Every one of us as humans will fall prey to cognitive bias at some point – pattern making and matching are important evolutionary advantages.  But the leadership of our communities is many people working together.  Inherent in the types of cognitive biases described above are ways that community leadership can avoid their negative impacts.

  • Diversity.  The best way to counter groupthink is to have people with diverse mental models each grappling with new information.
  • Respect.  If people respect one another, then they are unlikely to have overweight their opinions and capabilities against someone else’s.  They are also more likely to listen to each other.
  • Good governance structures.  Diversity can lead to conflict; respect can lead to a desire to placate everyone.  Both can lead to inaction.  Good governance structures can achieve an appropriate balance as well as adding other checks and balances to avoid cognitive biases.

Our communities need information to gauge the risks they face and to find ways to either adapt to or mitigate those risks.  They need information to find ways to become more robust and to recognize and seize the opportunities around them.  They need information to strike a good balance among their myriad needs and competing priorities.  Cognitive biases disturb and distort the flow of information.  If our communities are to become more resilient, they must find ways to combat cognitive biases.

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