The Role of Bias in Psychological Distress

March 13, 2017

What does bias mean? It’s the brain’s tendency to emphasize and process certain types of information over others. It can be difficult to understand, but in this article we’ll explain how it influences our emotions in a simple and concrete way.

We’ll look at the difference between normal and negative biases. The latter increase feelings of distress, so to avoid their undesirable effects, it’s necessary to know how they arise and how they act on our thought processes.

“The truth is what it is, and it continues to be true even if we think the opposite.”

-Antonio Machado-

What are cognitive biases?

Every day we come across a considerable amount of information, which comes from both outside and inside ourselves. If the brain had to process it all, there wouldn’t be enough time for anything else. It wouldn’t be able to fulfill the rest of the functions it’s responsible for.

This is why the mind takes certain shortcuts when interpreting the information it receives. These shortcuts are cognitive biases. We all have a certain tendency to pay attention to, interpret, and remember certain information over other information. We’re going to look at three types of bias:

  • Attentional bias: the tendency to pay attention to one type of stimulus over others that are presented at the same time.
  • Interpretive bias: the tendency to interpret situations in a certain way.
  • Memory bias: the tendency to remember certain events and use them to interpret the current situation.
tinfoil man

Attentional bias

Relying on biases is normal, necessary, and beneficial because it saves a good amount of mental resources. As we’ve mentioned, it saves the brain time and energy in the processing of information and allows it to focus on the rest of the tasks it must perform.

So when do they become harmful? With respect to attentional biases, they become harmful when they are directed towards negative stimuli. That is, when a person focuses more on information that could be threatening or harmful than on that which could be neutral or beneficial.

For example, one would have a negative attentional bias if they were speaking in public and fixated on a listener who was frowning instead of one who was paying attention. An example of someone with a harmless attentional bias would be someone who focused on other aspects, like a listener who had the same computer as them.

In this situation, the person with the negative bias would feel like people made weird faces while they talked, leading to information processing that would result in negative emotions. Negative attentional bias can also be a natural consequence of confirmation bias: a bias in which the person actively seeks information that confirms their previous beliefs.

In this case, the person may have sought to confirm that they’re not skilled enough at public presentations, and therefore paid special attention to information that aligned with this belief and ignored information that pointed to the contrary or linked it with something other than their own aptitude for public speaking. They might think that the people who didn’t wince or who applauded them did so out of courtesy rather than as a true approval of their performance. Which leads to interpretive bias, which we discuss below.

“Mind is a flexible mirror, adjust it, to see a better world.”

-Amit Ray-

What is interpretive bias?

Something similar happens with the other two biases we mentioned. Interpretive bias is harmful when we evaluate situations as dangerous or threatening when in reality they’re neutral or ambiguous.

One example of this can be derived from the scenario mentioned above. A person with a normal bias has no reason to think that people didn’t like their speech. They might think that they simply had some doubts about it or that they were thinking about their own personal matters. But someone with a negative bias would interpret this as evidence of them being a bad speaker, that nobody was interested in what they were talking about, that the audience thought they were ridiculous, etc.

woman drying hair

How does memory bias work?

Finally, memory bias is problematic when we tend to remember past negative situations when interpreting current situations, instead of calling neutral or positive ones to memory.

To continue with the example we’ve been using, a person who remembers a disastrous presentation they did a few years ago and evaluates in relation to the present moment, they’re going to think that the current one will also go poorly.

In contrast, for someone who has also gone through a similar situation in which a presentation didn’t go well, but who remembers the ones that did go well more, their presentation would not be invaded by the negative emotions that would arise if they only remembered the terrible one.

There are many studies that show the presence of negative cognitive biases in many psychological disorders. There are also many studies that discuss people who have no disorder, but for whom negative biases are a huge source of negative emotions. Lastly, throughout our lives, we’ve all gotten stuck in the web of cognitive biases at some point.

It’s interesting to know how they function, and also how to improve them to reduce their power. We hope that this article has helped you identify them and intervene quickly so that they condition your thoughts and emotions as little as possible.

Images courtesy of Ryan McGuire

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