Conquering cognitive biases: how meditation makes you more open-minded

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How many 180s does it take to turn away from your preconceptions? Although cognitive biases are theoretically thinking habits, we tend to employ them unthinkingly. Think about the last time you met a new person, and how quickly you fleshed out your imagination of the rest of their life in your mind as the conversation took place. 

Cognitive biases often work against us, making us more closed-minded and prone to following the same roads to the same eventual thought destinations, no matter how fresh the material is that we’re funnelling into them. Meditation is often recommended as an adjunct to cognitive bias therapy; a type of psychotherapy that focuses on transcending our personal biases where we find them. Over-reliance on cognitive biases often occurs particularly profoundly in cases of anxiety and low-self esteem, but meditation is something everyone can benefit from in its own right with regard to reducing bias within the alchemy of our inner worlds. 

Types of cognitive bias

Regularly practicing meditation with a mantra, as in the Beeja method, increases our familiarity with our own thoughts, which in turn allows us to develop an expanding awareness of patterns in our thinking, as well as the commonality of gaps in their logic. Exploring various prevalent forms of cognitive bias is a useful prelude to minimizing them in our psyches, with the aid of meditation. 

Confirmation bias. When we have a confirmation bias, we interpret and recall information in a way that supports our beliefs, often while failing to engage with the multifaceted complexity of reality. An ambiguous statement becomes a negative one, in the mind of someone viewing the world through a pessimistic lens. When we labour under a confirmation bias, we shear ourselves of our interpretive abilities, simultaneously divesting people’s written or spoken words of their true, and indeed multiple potential layers of meaning. 

The halo and horn effects. The halo effect involves letting positive impressions of a person/thing influence your perceptions of other areas. For instance, we tend to assume that attractive people are less likely to commit crimes. Likewise, the horn effect involves letting negativity towards a person tar your perceptions of all their actions. Angelfood for thought: are you giving anyone in your life an underserved free pass, or, conversely, not giving them enough of a fair chance? Both effects are usually applied by our unconscious mind and, as such, diminish with meditation. 

The illusion of transparency. How well do you think you know yourself and the people you encounter? Probably even better than you actually do! The illusion of transparency occurs when we have over-inflated opinions of our self-knowing capabilities and undue confidence regarding how well we know the minds of others. The more meditation increases your acceptance of unknowable unknowns, the more readily you’ll admit gaps in your personal narratives and knowledge, as well as allowing the actual words and actions of others to shape them. 

The Dunning-Kruger effect. This can manifest as an inability to recognise our lack of skills in certain areas; (a great consideration to bear in mind when making avant-garde recipe choices under tight time constraints while cooking for a very special occasion, for instance!). Clear-eyed from meditation, you’ll become increasingly able to identify the areas of opportunity to develop your skills, turning future disappointments into present challenges that you can prepare yourself and your eventual, diligently practiced soufflés to rise to. 

The backfire effect. The backfire effect is a strange phenomenon, whereby established beliefs get inexplicably stronger in the face of contradictory evidence. Cast your mind back to every passionate debate you’ve ever had, from playground scraps to political sparring with a certain relative during the festive season. The backfire effect is why no one ever wins arguments online; when you get trapped in an echo-chamber, you get lonelier and lonelier, the louder your echo becomes. 

Meditation helps develop your capacity to listen to what others say, while your increased relaxation provides the perfect canvas for digesting their opinions, (however unsavoury) before your own emotional responses get triggered. As your, er, opponents begin to reflect the calmness you exude too, you’ll see that debates really can become discussions.

Law of the instrument. Meditation opens us up behind our habituated thought patterns, and it can also help us move beyond playing it safe. As we go through life, we often develop dependencies on tried and tested methods, which can lead to failing to think through a situation afresh, and devising the best way to navigate it. 

“When you have a hammer, everything becomes a nail,” says the indescribably lonely carpentry aficionado; impulse may guide us to take a hammer to a butterfly in conversation, breaking it on a wheel in a state of compulsive reactivity. Falling back on known approaches as opposed to trying creative alternatives is something we’re less likely to do when we’re accessing our intuition and expanding our capacities for innovation, spontaneity and creative problem-solving. 

Planning your life awry. Inflexible thinking can ruin your life in all sorts of ways. In particular, by making you more prone to the plan continuation bias. This involves sticking to your well-laid plans in the face of circumstantial or emotional gear shifts. So many wedding days approach — and happen! —in the face of niggling doubts that runaway brides and/or instantly regretted nuptials are perennial tropes of literature, film, and TV. 

Another kind of unhelpful planning which tends to occur less often as a result of regular meditation is planning fallacy; i.e. laying plans based on incorrect assumptions about yourself, others or a situation. This commonly involves underestimating task completion times (dissertations and all-nighters don’t have to be as synonymous as they can seem!). As meditation increases the alignment between your rationality and reality, you’ll catch more worms and open yourself up to fewer disappointments and regrets. 

Naive realism. No matter how tolerant and non-judgemental we think we are, most of us default to thinking we see the world more clearly than other people do. While we’re always magnanimously taking in the bigger picture, we tell ourselves, other people are lazy in their evaluations, less well-read, and where their views clash with ours, they’re misinformed. 

The path to enlightenment is paved with enrichment derived from listening to others, and it leads directly away from these kinds of assumptions. The more often we countenance breakdowns in our knowledge systems and increase our sense of the scope of what we don’t know yet, the more we become receptive to the knowledge of others. You’ll come to discover that it’s better to leave gaps in our knowledge open, and vested with bright potentiality than to close them with fiction instead of fact.  

Semmelweis reflex. Harvard professor Timothy Leary defines the Semmelweis reflex as “mob behaviour found among primates and larval hominids on undeveloped planets, in which a discovery of important scientific fact is punished.” We have a tendency to resist change and development. This may involve a hostile, knee-jerk reaction to evolutions in the world around us, as well as within ourselves. 

The potential lunacy of our initial hostility to new ideas is epitomised by the initial knee-jerk reaction within the scientific community to a discovery by Ignaz Semmelweis that physicians could reduce mortality by washing their hands. While hand-washing is a gold-standard in medicine today, the medical community of the 1840s washed their hands of Semmelweis and his newfangled hypothesis, outraged by his implication that gentlemen could be unclean. Meditation enables us to shed our long-held beliefs as well as our preconceptions. Does the furniture of your universe need reupholstering?

Stereotyping. This involves expecting a member of the group to have certain characteristics without any evidence. We tend to think of this as something most people already make a conscious effort to avoid but, in practice, we’re so prone to it that we’re most likely “judging a book by its cover” in many different, subtle ways. 

For instance, we may assume someone else’s breakup is an inherently negative experience, when they may be looking at it as an opportunity for transformation, or that our change of location will necessarily engender a change of headspace because “travel broadens the mind.” Meditation enhances our propensity to question why we think the things we think, increasingly guiding us to notice when unnecessary stereotyping lies at the heart of them. 

Connect, relate, appreciate: beyond bias

With all these different ways we can trip ourselves up, it’s a wonder we ever manage to share a moment of connection with one another. We connect with others best when we are ready to hear what they say. Engaging without bias requires us to resist our innate tendency to feed others’ words automatically into our extensive processing machines so that we can avoid interpreting what we have taken in on our personally skewed terms. 

Gravitating away from indulging in unconscious bias makes us less likely to feel alienated by others’ words and actions. As we become less prone to prejudgement, we can move to create tolerant group atmospheres where our minds meet around the metaphorical campfire, greeting each new concept afresh. This is one of the many complex and infinitely rewarding ways in which meditation can bring us closer to one another, revitalizing our relationships. 

If you would like to explore how Beeja meditation can help you upgrade your interaction with others and improve your relationships, get in touch and explore our classes and courses in London. 

Words: Rosalind Stone

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