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Combatting the Psychology of Bias

How our brains undermine long-term thinking

The 2008 banking crisis cost the country of Iceland a larger percentage of its economy than any country has lost in any previous financial crisis. In retrospect, this was predictable, as the likely long-term consequence of a financial system deeply entwined with risky financial instruments. So, why wasn’t it predicted? When a special commission investigated why it hadn’t been foreseen and prevented, they concluded that while there was identifiable negligence on the part of individuals, “the most important lessons to draw from these events are about weak social structures, political culture, and public institutions.” The commission concluded that the crisis was not only preventable, but that a pattern of short-term decisions had led to this risk being ignored.  

A decade later, Dr. Ashish Jha said of the predictable and preventable COVID-19 death toll in the United States that “We got the medical science right. We failed on the social science.” There is a pattern here: When a preventable disaster loomed on the horizon, behaviors didn’t change and institutions or people failed to act until the situation had already reached the point of crisis. Dr. Jha identified also identified the roots of this pattern in social science. Our decision-making processes are well-designed for a host of evolutionary and social needs—and in most contexts the results are decisions which meet our short-term goals—but they are not necessarily adapted to reducing long-term risk.

Social impact organizations, armed with the knowledge of what these biases look like, can work to create the social contexts in which the same underlying biases that cause short-term decisions can instead lead to long-term benefit. In this way, by understanding the basics of decision making and building interventions which align long-term behavior with the needs of people in the moment, social impact organizations can address long-term problems.

Please select this link to read the complete article from SSIR.

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