The Benefits of Instinctive Bias

Last year I wrote a lengthy comment on an article about confirmation bias because I felt the author dwelt too much on how to overcome bias instead of how to harness it. I came across this comment recently and realised that it covered an aspect of how our instincts function that I hadn’t described before. So it really belongs here on the Great Instincts blog …

The article I was commenting on can be found here:

My comment:

It is great to point out confirmation bias, especially when it’s done in such a charming way. It’s important for people to know about this.

However, when it is presented as a flaw or something to be overcome, its greater value is being overlooked. Looking at this from an evolutionary perspective helps to reveal the utility in this natural instinctive response in humans. If we are all influenced by confirmation bias on a daily, hourly basis, then surely it must have been selected for its survival value. If it happens for a good reason, then perhaps it is something which can be harnessed rather than suppressed.

As pointed out, “seeing” what you expect to see can work for you or against you. An upside, for instance, is recognising opportunities because you expect them to show up. A more fundamental truth is that what we see is always a product of our imagination. Our senses take in the available information and our brain processes the data into a conception of the whole. If this conception reasonably resembles objective reality then we don’t bump into walls, get run over by busses or needlessly rub people up the wrong way. But it is still and inevitably our own unique subjective version of reality, for better or worse.

It takes time for the brain to build up the layers of integrated information needed to ultimately make up a conscious and functional view of the world. This interval is measured in milliseconds, not seconds, but in neurological terms we are still talking about fifty iterations or more needed to tweak what we are seeing into something really worth thinking about. And while this mental constructing is proceeding (roughly within the blink of an eye), it is up to our “unthinking” instinctive reactions to keep us alive and our relationships intact in the meantime. Here’s where confirmation bias comes in handy.

It helps to look at instincts as “preconscious” responses. They are the rapid-response faculty of the mind, happening faster than conscious thought. In the same way that firemen “expect” fires to happen, or police expect crimes to occur, specific instincts also anticipate things happening “out there”: so your system is primed to respond instantly and effectively when they do.

Whenever you undertake something new and unfamiliar, like yoga … or a first date … or asking for a raise … or snake-handling … it is your danger instinct (fear/preventing) which is cued for instant response. It may be your curiosity or your appetite for risk or opportunity that has prompted you to venture into this unmapped territory, but as soon as you do, it is your native caution that comes to the fore to protect you while your brain is busily processing the extra load of identifying new patterns and matching them with familiar ones.

That’s why our confirmation bias often seems negative at the beginning of things. It is — it’s hyper-alert for the unsuspected danger. The unfamiliar is guilty until proven innocent. This bias has protected our particular branch of evolution through millions of years of exploration and experimentation, while other branches have become extinct under the same conditions.

If actual threats don’t materialise in due course, giving the conscious mind enough time to identify value in the new activity/terrain, then your instincts automatically “switch gears”: cuing up a more accepting attitude which seeks and finds ways to “fit in” instead (as opposed to being poised to “bug out” at the first excuse). As further conscious experience is gained, then the “bias gearshift” switches again, cueing up a more assertive approach to mining value here — and so on through a hard-wired sequence of instinctive biasses (automatic unthinking/intuitive precedents) prioritising the natural learning process as familiarity grows.

In all, 15 different instinctive human biasses (prompting filters) may be preconsciously adopted in this way. This is much more than any other animal possesses and accounts for the sophisticated learning and adapting of which humans are capable.

So that’s why confirmation bias actually exists in humans (or any other organism, for that matter). It is our NORAD — our early warning response system — which goes through a series of “alert phases” while our conscious mind finds out what it wants to find out. This only becomes a problem when a particular instinctive response becomes habitual — mistakenly applied all of the time to a whole class of situations, instead of appropriately to the current situation. Phobias, addictions, compulsions — any hangup really — all fall under this heading.

Only then does confirmation bias truly get in the way. The rest of the time it is helping us through the day.

I thought this might be of interest. As a Performance Coach, I have been investigating how to harness and troubleshoot confirmation bias (instinctive responses) to permanently improve performance for the past 27 years (

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Posted August 1, 2018 at 9:13 pm by Gus Griffin · Permalink
In: Misc