We have been tuned by evolutionary process to be guided by clues and to act automatically. To perceive the world more accurately takes time and effort. The way our brain interprets the world around us is through cognitive biases.[i] They are in our brains, little short cuts that help us act and not think. Discovering how these habits of thinking or set points work requires a disciplined effort. Without effort, it is difficult to bring objectivity and awareness into our lives. “Think for yourself” is a very dangerous idea. You can be outside the group’s way of seeing, but you may also be released from suffering.
Consider the effort to understand people in your family. Do you dismiss the idea and say: “My family is fine,” or do you say, “I want to know more about my family. I want to overcome this or that problem, or speak to person X about situation Y"? Who wants to spend time and energy acquiring systems knowledge to act in a more thoughtful way in our families and in all our relationships? To do so often begins by understanding our misperceptions and biases.
Here is an example of bias due to early experiences: A dog sitter comes over to my friend’s house. She has been told the dog, Joey, will sleep with her. She tries to lift him up but he squirms away and goes to the other side of the bed and just sits. Joey just looks at her. The dog sitter immediately feels rejected. She gives up and goes to bed without Joey. She is aware enough not to get mad at the dog, but she feels totally rejected. When my friend comes home she consoles the dog sitter and tells her that Joey was just trying to tell her that he only gets up on the side of the bed that he went to. She was amazed that her brain had misinterpreted the situation, but upon reflection she knew how sensitive she was to rejection, even from a dog.
 A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own "subjective social reality" from their perception of the input. An individual's construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality. Some cognitive biases are presumably adaptive. Cognitive biases may lead to more effective actions in a given context. Furthermore, cognitive biases enable faster decisions when timeliness is more valuable than accuracy, as illustrated in heuristics. Other cognitive biases are a "by-product" of human processing limitations, resulting from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms (bounded rationality), or simply from a limited capacity for information processing. A continually evolving list of cognitive biases has been identified over the last six decades of research on human judgment and decision-making in cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics. Kahneman and Tversky (1996) argue that cognitive biases have efficient practical implications for areas including clinical judgment, entrepreneurship, finance, and management.
We are full of cognitive biases that makes it difficult to observe a situation and consider that there are many reasons for troubling behavior. Over evolutionary time the brain figured out short cuts so it doesn’t spend too much energy trying to figure things out and put the brain on automatic. It has worked for thousands of years. But now our world is crowded and complicated. We have serious and complex problems, and we cannot do as well by falling back on habitual and ancient ways of thinking and responding, or we end up creating a dangerous and fearful social reality.
Lee Ross, a groundbreaking psychologist, noted that “Each person has to believe that their view of reality is how it really is, and conflicts arise when people have different views." The "hostile attribution bias" is the tendency to interpret others' behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.[ii]
Consider another example. I call it blindsided by triangles: A father has a fantastic business that he loves. The only one in the family that spends time talking to him about the business and who always has good ideas is his oldest daughter. They spend a lot of time together. The other children do not object. The mother criticizes her daughter for her choice of clothes and the way her children behave. The father can talk about his will and says he intends to leave the business to his oldest daughter and his wife. 49% will go to the daughter and 51% will be for the wife. You might guess that the set point in these relationships begins to intensify after the father’s death. The mother interprets the daughter’s not calling her back and not living where she wants her to live as hostile. She begins to believe that the daughter (always the father’s favorite) has been striving to do her in and to take over the company. The mother feels alone and rejected, just like she did in the marriage. She is both grieving and angry and cannot tell her daughter or anyone about her inner thoughts. The daughter who is trying to balance her work life and four children interprets that her mother is demanding and controlling and wants to have less to do with her.
Without understanding the history of a system, the side taking, the triangles, and the lack of ability for important people in the system to be more open, outside consultants can rush in to fix the problem. If problems are a way the system is organized, then how does a consultant activate the most motivated person to take on understanding the family problem and get beyond the short cut bias that leads to blame? When Bowen spoke to groups, he would note that 10% of the audience would be interested in systems ideas and perhaps 1% would take an action to change the way they thought and acted in various situations where they were impinged upon.
One key concept in Family Systems Theory is differentiation of self. The ability of an individual to distinguish between thinking for self or acting for the system based on feelings is basic to the concept of differentiation. Bowen developed his scale of differentiation noting that it is difficult for the average person not to take actions to relieve anxiety. It becomes difficult to know how to take an action based on principle and on understanding the emotional system. It is hard to see clearly when anxiety goes up and people lose sight of boundaries. People try to control one another instead of learning from each another. They can get too involved or too distant from each another. This creates confusion and weakness, damaging our ability to cooperate and solve problems.
Those few willing to understand the family as an emotional system need to have a strong “backbone,” because often the family or an organization, or even a friendship group, might not appreciate those who dare to think for self. If one is more aware of the system’s forces impacting any situation, one individual might be able to interrupt the gathering storm of family intensity and put in a funny comment, pause, perhaps speak slower, and/or insert a message designed to increase, at least momentarily, one’s own thinking. The idea is that by managing your part of any conversation you are changing your set point, your automatic reaction, and are more likely to find better ways to manage self, and perhaps in the process others in the system may change.
Every social system must manage anxiety, and the automatic way for systems to manage anxiety is to find a scapegoat. Observing and understanding how systems function allows an individual to chart his or her own path. Once you can see how systems function, you are automatically more neutral and less reactive. When problems come up, you may have the courage to tell others what you will or will not do, not what they should or must do. Serious problems arise when we tell others what they should do, unless of course you’re in the military.
Here are a few hard questions to consider: Where and when am I biased? When do I refuse to talk about difficult situations? Do I misinterpret others? Do I write others off because someone, my family members, or people at work, or the other kids on the playground, said they were no good? Do I over- or undervalue myself? Do I know how my childhood influenced my ability to risk, to trust others? Am I reliable? Who do I practice being honest with? Who can enable me to see things differently? Am I thinking for myself or quietly going along with the group?
Going along with others, remaining silent can still pass on anxiety to others, another example: Long ago, on a foggy night, two boats collide at sea. A grandfather is returning from a vacation with his twenty-year-old grandson, and is thrown overboard and run over by the other boat. The grandfather’s body is mangled. His grandson picks him up out of the water. He is overwhelmed but knows he must be strong and tell his family that his grandfather has died. After this incident, he never wants to talk about death or go on a boat or even near the water. The young man pours all his energy into his business, becoming aloof and very successful. He marries without telling anyone of the incident. When “emotional” problems occur, he turns them over to his wife. Eventually his wife becomes overwhelmed. She cannot deal well with the children and blames her husband for being irresponsible. People take sides, they go underground with their feelings, conflicts arise, and people cut off from one another.
Who can see how history shapes set points and note that the emptiness in the family base of knowledge impacts the future? There are actions that are destructive to any family, friendship, or business. Keeping quiet when problems arise is one of these problems. Telling others what to do to solve the problem is another. There are also actions that are constructive. Getting to know all the living members of your family beyond what others say about them, preparing your family for your death, being present at family events, being trustworthy, and maintaining your own viewpoints are basic principles to enhance one’s maturity. There are many such proactive behaviors. They all require courage to be separate but in contact with others. Only new information that is integrated by one’s self can alter set points.
The challenges we face have changed in the last hundred years, but what has not changed is the underlying nature of the human to be heavily influenced by set points, by habits, and by powerful instincts that still guide us. Our brain contains vestiges of the reptile, the mammal and on top sits a thin but influential logical, rational processor. Our brains may always prefer the automatic and a cheap energy way out, so set points will not go away. However, by responding more carefully to relationship challenges, we can earn greater freedom to be our best self with those we care about.