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May 29, 2016 | by  | in Breathing Space |
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Breathing Space

In previous articles we have discussed ways to improve our own well-being, in this article I want to do something slightly different. I am going to talk about the effect that our opinions can have on other people’s well-being.

This morning before leaving for university I heard a sound coming from the street below my house. A car horn, blaring long and loud. My initial thought was “what a horrible person.” My follow up thought was “what good will blasting your horn do anyway?” Well it turns out I have no idea what good it will do. Of course I don’t, from my point of view I can only observe one person’s behaviour. I can’t observe the context of the situation that behaviour was performed in, and more importantly, I cannot see into the mind of the person performing that behaviour. And yet I instantly and instinctively formed an opinion, not only of the situation, but of one of the people in it. Had I been there and had an opportunity to interact with them, what would have happened?

In social and cognitive psychology we often speak of biases. A cognitive bias describes an error in thinking that humans are prone to making. Sometimes these biases can be adaptive, and that is part of the reason we have them. If you hear a rustling sound in the bush in Australia, a cognitive shortcut may lead you to assume it is a snake. This biased decision will then activate your fight or flight mode (let’s be honest, your flight mode—how do you even fight a snake?) leading you to run away.

Unfortunately these biases can sometimes lead you to the wrong decision or, in the case of my experience this morning, the wrong opinion. The bias I fell prey to is called the actor-observer bias. This bias is that we judge our own actions and behaviours based on our intentions, but we judge others based solely on their actions and behaviours as we cannot always know their intentions. This can lead us to form the wrong opinion of them. This morning no harm came of this bias for me, but at other times it can. Our opinions of others shape our interactions with them, they shape how we speak to others, they shape what we do for others. If we hold a negative opinion of someone we may do something that negatively affects their well-being, either consciously or unconsciously.

This is an important bias to be aware of, because in being aware of it we can take a step back when we need to and think—is my opinion of this person appropriate? It is not only our own well-being we should be aware of, but also the well-being of others because we all need each other and we are all in this together aren’t we? Well almost all of us… maybe not the snakes….

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