Updated: Jan 28
Sweden’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic has opened my eyes to human bias. While not having the burden to make decisions for the collective, some of us feel entitled to take sides in what is right or wrong (as if the current situation would be as simple as to say it is black or white!).
The simplification mind trick
The human mind is wired to simplify what it can’t comprehend - until it does - to restore a sense of control, needed to feel less vulnerable. That simplification mind trick creates an unconscious bias. The remedy is to not cling blindly to one side or another, but challenge ourselves: why have we chosen to stick with this opinion? Why is the other side “wrong”?
The need to (re)gain some semblance of control
For those reacting to the restrictive measures during COVID-19, rightly pointing that fear led to world wars and tyranny, be reminded that your positioning and references have exactly the same effect: generating fear to do the unthinkable months ago. Your fear of - not just temporarily - losing individual rights and freedom leads you to become a rebel and start challenging publicly the one making decisions. Though it may feel very real, what if this is your mind’s trick in simplifying what can’t be comprehended in order to gain some semblance of control?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not taking sides here. The point is to say that defenders of both sides are using the same methods and tools. Those reacting to restrictive measures claim that the other side is using fear to get what they want, while actually so do they. Fear is a powerful trigger and we seek refuge in our core values - be they compassion or freedom or a desire for safety and stability. We fall for the side where our core value (subjective element) is the most represented. You believe you are choosing a side, while fear actually is. The choice isn’t really rational; it is emotional. The explanation to justify the emotional choice is simply a demonstration that your fear took over and has the mind under its control to come up with reasons on why your emotional decision is the "right" one.
Let’s take Sweden as an example for illustration, where some strongly believe Sweden is the right approach to follow, in opposition to lockdowns. Again, not in favor or against the Swedish approach here. I personally think it is far too early, with far too many different variables, to decide which method is best – that can only be done when the situation is over. Meanwhile, understandably so, different decision-makers assessed based on their capabilities (subjective) and decided on what is best based on that assessment. Who made the best assessment can only be confirmed once it is over. And as usual, with hindsight, it will be obvious which one had the best chances to succeed, once all the variable factors have played out and it can be looked at with all the data objectively.
So back to the Swedish case. In case you are inclined to the Swedish side (based on your fear of losing your individual rights and freedom), if you stay there and start explaining the reasons why Sweden is the best approach to emulate, you are exactly in the situation described above. Your core value freedom has been triggered (emotional) and you use apparent rational explanations to justify its validity. If someone's core value is compassion, the thinking leads to a different path. But then, comparing freedom to compassion, is it still possible to say one is right and the other is wrong?
(Notice, reader, how your mind is possibly trying here to come came up with an explanation as to why one value should be superior to the other right now. And that’s my point exactly. You stopped considering both sides as a possibility. That is the bias). If you really want to challenge yourself by verifying the possible existence of a bias, give yourself the opportunity to choose rationally vs emotionally, meaning you are invited to look at your preferred side critically.
Assuming you’re an individual whose core value points towards freedom, here is an article presenting a different view on the Swedish approach: https://www.newsweek.com/sweden-coronavirus-deaths-children-lockdown-1502548
A few fair points in this article, of which one especially struck me: a government opted for the herd immunity approach, one with the potential to see higher deaths, without any consent. Citizens did not get a say. Assuming you are drawn to the Swedish approach through the fear of losing freedom, that same value should also be triggered here: an authority decided without your consent that you may die for the benefit of the collective, even more so if you fall under the vulnerable category.
If your mind begins to race trying to respond with explanations around the fact that your INDIVIDUAL rights and freedom are violated because fill in the blank [you are young/ healthy/ unlikely to die/debt or economy will kill you faster than the virus/etc.], pause for a moment.
Your fear is not that citizens are losing their freedom. Your fear is for yourself. And that is no longer about the value of freedom as a concept but individualism. Your fear has been triggered because an authority has taken a collective decision with which you are unsatisfied. So you aren't protecting the core value freedom, but you. That’s where bias enters the equation - your sense of freedom has been emotionally tainted because you made it subjective.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to values. If lockdowns aren’t right, deciding on who gets to die for others to live doesn’t make it right either, does it?
I pondered about adding the perspective on the Sweden case through the lens of compassion in order to demonstrate in a different way that the bias would still exist, but then I realised: by doing so, your mind will race to find a different explanation pushing towards the direction of your existing value system. We fall back into the mind trick explained above. And you won't be actually challenging yourself. I would possibly end up reinforcing what is attempted to be uncovered here. The existence of bias.
One cannot change someone who doesn't want to change. The addition of another example wouldn’t make my point clearer if there is no intention to want to detect the bias in the first place.
But for the curious ones, I leave you this. Do the exercise yourself. Take the Sweden example and see where your thoughts go if they follow the value of compassion. Or safety. And if your thoughts still seem to meander back to your freedom core value, even if you follow a different path, double-check you haven’t subconsciously followed the thread for “freedom” along the way accidentally. The mind trick is strong and it isn’t easy stepping outside one’s value system.
So, what did you find out? Did you spot your biases?
An unwitting bias is far more dangerous than an acknowledged one.
Compassion and freedom are among my core values. For many years I was convinced that as a former lawyer my mind was forged to fight for individual freedoms and rights, no matter what. Then I realized – with some help (thank you Kelvin Lim) – that I was becoming a prisoner to my concept of freedom. My obsession with safeguarding freedom had become a gilded cage in which I was a prisoner, alone. What an irony. I had to realize my freedom ends where someone else’s began.
Until this crisis, my shift in values was never seriously challenged. COVID-19 uncovered the reality of the changes to my core values: despite the many restrictions on my individual freedom, my need for freedom isn’t overthrowing my desire for compassion, which nourishes my willingness to sacrifice some of my rights to help more than just myself.
Nevertheless, I know I have not been tested to the fullest extent yet. I am willing to forgo my value for freedom so long as I see that, collectively, the majority follows the rules and we get the benefits of the collective effort in the name of compassion. If things reached the point where sacrifice in the name of compassion no longer works (subjectively decided, of course; it’s a bias like anything else), would I flip?
Yes, our internal value systems are not carved in stone as there is an internal ranking; they can switch based on perceived benefits. That, however, is a musing for another time. Ultimately, yes – I am biased. We all are. And that means we need to keep a close eye on ourselves – and another one on those making decisions for others.
--- Carina Rogerio is the Managing Director and Founder of SeeAre Pte. Ltd. She came across coaching in 2012, which propelled her lawyer career. Curious about the skills behind coaching, she attended a coaching certification course which later led her to also include mediation to her set of skills. She realized throughout her journey that her true motivation was to pay it forward and facilitate wished changes in her clients, both at the individual and organizational levels. To learn more about SeeAre, visit www.seeare.co