I'm reading
Biases and big feels
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Biases and big feels
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Biases and big feels
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
12 April 2021

Biases and big feels

Thanh-Thy Tiffany Tran unpacks some of the neuroscience behind intuition and explores how we can make healthy gut decisions.

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Seven years ago during a particularly tiring week, I woke up and decided to quit my job. Two dreams in two nights made me do it: one, of me plunging parachute-less off a cliff, and the other of a jumbo jet crashing towards me. They were saying I had to reroute my life otherwise doom was up ahead (obviously!). Butterflies rising in my body, I needed a dramatic change and it needed to happen immediately. My resignation letter was ‘sent’.

I paraded through my twenties with this rather romantic attitude, rerouting and making decisions based on what my “gut” was saying. Society’s echoes of “follow your heart” assured me. So did the notion that each of us bears an inner well of “deep knowing” that we can access for direction with little to no explanation. Look inwards – there you will find Truth with a capital ‘T’. You already know.

As a Big Feeler, following my intuition didn’t seem to hurt anyone else – perhaps only my mother who would have preferred I chose a more stable career path. But in this current information landscape, I’ve been thinking a lot about how constructive trusting my gut actually is.

Our world is flooded with impassioned, polarising content, from sensationalised and fake news articles to didactic social media posts by charismatic friends, influencers and brands who mean no harm. It’s much easier to be swept about by emotional tides and raise our fists in solidarity than to bog down in fact-checking. That has dangerous consequences.

To fellow Big Feelers out there, let’s explore this.

Feelings as a process

First, it’s useful to know where our gut feelings come from. A sixth sense? Neuroscience says no. These feelings are the result of a lot of processing going on in the brain. Our beautiful, wildly complex brains like patterns. They constantly compare incoming sensory information against its stored knowledge from past experiences to predict what comes next, either making a match or a mismatch. When there’s a mismatch, our brains update their cognitive models. Intuition happens when there’s been a match or mismatch before we consciously register it.

Zooming out, pattern recognition helps us save time and energy, and make decisions as best as possible. Our intuition is fast and automatic, and we use it all the time. The more experiences we have, the more information our brain has to match against, the more our intuition is reliable. Necessary and useful.

Feelings as a guide

But the mind has limitations. Our instinct that feels emotional certainty is likely to misjudge situations too. In their essay “Emotional Scepticism”, psychologists and social scientists at The School of Life highlight the fact that our brain is susceptible to the physiological state of our body, and the brain’s old patterns of ‘action’ and ‘feeling’, self-control difficulties, egocentricity, and social conditioning.

Knowing our brains can be biased when “Big Feels” rise, there are things to consider so we can make healthier decisions:

Nourishing Ourselves – Have we slept enough? How healthy is our food diet? What are our sugar levels? Are our hormones balanced?

Rewriting Patterns – Are we unfairly distrusting a situation or someone because we’ve been let down in a similar scenario in the past?

Illuminating Fears – What exactly are we afraid of? Are they real threats that endanger our lives or perceived threats that stir superfluous anxiety?

Building Empathy – In the face of disagreement, disgust and distrust, can we dare put ourselves in another’s shoes to understand them better?

Unravelling Conditioning – What might we independently think and feel if we don’t immediately follow the opinion or mood of the group?

This is only the beginning but a good start to discerning our biases. Buster Benson’s “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” lists more common cognitive biases and has been endorsed by neuroscientists – he has neatly grouped them into four situations that biases help us address: 1) when we have too much information, 2) when there’s not enough meaning, 3) when we need to act fast, and 4) when we need to choose what to remember. When we familiarise ourselves with them, we can better spot their occurrences in the future.

However, unconscious biases can be hard to catch. In the past few years, there has been a surge in public conversations about its effects on how we feel about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status and nationality. We still have a lot to learn.

For almost two decades, the world relied on The Implicit Association Test co-created by University of Washington and Harvard psychologists to unveil these subconscious attitudes towards others, but it was deemed flawed by academic researchers around the world in 2017.

One’s unconscious biases are difficult to measure and there’s no quick antidote. In a 2020 ‘Science Mag’ feature on the impact of biases, journalist Douglas Starr wrote of psychologist Dr Jennifer Eberhardt that “she, like other experts, says one effective countermeasure is to slow down, to move your thinking from the primitive, reactive parts of the brain to more reflective levels.”

Thinking and feeling

These “reflective levels” mirror the sceptic attitude of what the Ancient Greeks called “epoche,” translated as a “suspension of judgement.” It means to not rush into decisions, to let the feelings settle, and laboriously re-evaluate them at a later time. Buddhism teaches us another kind of “equanimity”. Through meditation, we can be more aware of the changing extreme weathers that are our feelings. To not judge or avoid them, but to sit in the storm for wisdom to rise. To see more clearly before reacting.

Big Feels is intuitive wisdom, and that I’m grateful to have. But after we click, read, listen, or march – step back. Yes, we are allowed to feel. Yes, our feelings are valid. But they are not always Truth. With our inclination to misunderstand reality, we must analyse too. Consume less information, but understand deeper. Indeed, overanalysing has its flaws. The marriage between intuition and analysis – like any marriage – is a journey dependent on patience and compassion.

I wonder what my life would look like if on that morning seven years ago, I acknowledged the conviction stemmed from my dream, then let myself go back to bed.

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