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5 Ways to Bust Your Familiarity Bias and See What’s Possible
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jeffrey Davis.
Imagine you’re at your favorite coffee shop. While you glance over the menu, you probably know what you are going to order before you even arrive. Maybe an inner voice encourages you to be adventurous and try the maple bacon coffee, but then another voice overrides that one and tells you to go with the safe, familiar bet. Before you know it, the barista has your “regular” — a skim latté with a dash of hazelnut syrup — ready by the time you reach the cash register.
There is nothing wrong with establishing routines. I am known to be a dedicated “creature of habit.” Routines help me optimize my creative methods, business systems, and family rhythms. In fact, familiar routines are evolutionarily advantageous because they allow us to recognize patterns in our environments and make efficient decisions. Yet advances in cognitive psychology keep pointing out that some of these unconscious patterns can close our minds to seeing new opportunities and novel, useful solutions to our personal and professional challenges.
A key part of my work as a strategist and teacher has been in devising ways to help clients discover these implicit biases and trip their own biological wiring when it comes to making important decisions. It is easy to default to lazy, familiar thinking and working, but it is incredibly rewarding to bust those biases and patterns. One way to do that is through wonder. By flexing our wonder and strengthening our will to lean into discomfort, we can tap into our inner power and radically open ourselves to new and more effective possibilities.
Familiarity Bias and the Brain
If you have a choice between two options in your life or work — a safe one and a risky one — which one will you take? In a series of experiments, psychologists Chip Heath and Amos Tversky showed that when people are faced with a choice between two gambles, they will pick the one that is more familiar to them even when the odds of winning are lower. Our brains are designed to be wary of the unfamiliar.
Familiarity bias is our tendency to overvalue things we already know. When making choices, we often revert to previous behaviors, knowledge, or mindsets. As an example, last year a client wanted to shape and launch a personal brand distinct from her company’s brand. The possibility excited her to come out from behind her company and establish her presence as a thought leader.
But something happened. For the first two weeks, she kept wanting to make decisions for her brand identity, market, and key brand story message that were more aligned with her company’s existing brand. She didn’t realize she was doing it at first. Once we made the bias explicit — “busted” the bias — we could see her personal brand with a fresh and more truthful perspective. With her team’s encouragement, she gained the courage to present a personal brand identity that was more genuine, true, and ultimately captivating.
As with most of our biases, there’s an evolutionary basis for fawning on the familiar. Our subconscious brains stick with what’s familiar to save us time and energy: we search past experiences and base our behavior on what succeeded before rather than spend time interpreting how to respond in a given situation, or expending more energy imagining alternative solutions. The natural outcome of this pattern can be that we stick to what we know — even when the familiar route may be disadvantageous to advancing more creative endeavors, seeking meaningful work, or expanding our visibility.
How can we train our brains to lean into discomfort and open up to the unknown? Like any other muscle, we have to exercise this cognitive muscle and be open to surprise, or wonder. (Tweet this.)
Willpower Is a Muscle
This same familiarity bias is also why it can be difficult for us to break bad habits. While we usually slip into our habits unconsciously, we must make a conscious effort to change our established routines.
We tend to admire people who display strong self-discipline. Think of the friend who exercises religiously and sticks to their diet. These people seem to have an immense well of willpower that allows them to endure discomfort in order to break out of familiar habits and direct positive change in their lives. Countless studies have attempted to understand why some people have such fortitude while others do not, and most have come to agree that willpower is a muscle. Just like the muscles of our arms or legs, it tires the more you use it.
If we apply these findings to familiarity bias, we can see how busting this bias in part draws on our willpower to choose the unfamiliar (and riskier) option. As one Stanford study showed, we are more likely to choose the known over the unknown under pressure, even though the familiar choice may enhance our stress and minimize our rewards. While this means that we’re wired to take the path of least resistance to our own detriment, it also means that we can trip that wiring to increase our options.
So how can you learn to recognize the boundaries of your comfort zone, and push them? Enter wonder and its cousin emotions.
Broaden and Build
When we’re under pressure to make decisions for our work life or creative endeavors, we can stress ourselves out by trying to be hyper-productive and focused. Negative emotions can focus us and give us determination; however, they also can narrow our focus so much that our options might be limited at the very times we want to bust out of the familiarity zone.
In her ongoing study of positive emotion, psychologist Barbara Frederickson discovered that happiness and play have a significant impact on our capacity to see alternatives under duress. In her observations of children, Frederickson concluded that play (and the joy that came along with it) encouraged exploration and knowledge-gathering, both of which helped children to expand their worldview and develop better social skills. While negative emotions narrow our thinking and often elicit a “fight-or-flight” reaction, positive ones have a “broadening effect” that allows us to discard automatic responses — our familiar responses — and instead look for unpredictable and useful ways of thinking, solving problems, making decisions, and acting on our insights.
Unfortunately, many of us “play” less as we grow older and settle into predictable thought patterns to make our lives easier. (Familiarity strikes again!) In short, we forget our capacity for wonder. Wonder is the singular human experience that for a moment dissolves our biases so that we can see what is real and true and possible again. Wonder keeps cracking us and our cognitive walls open.
But just like willpower, wonder is a muscle that needs to be strengthened with practice. Here are five tips to track and foster wonder well. In doing so, may you open your mind to radically new possibilities:
Transform anxiety into curiosity. Instead of facing a challenge or decision by thinking I can’t do this or this is too difficult, start getting curious and quest-ful. The Questing Mindset begins with a quest. A quest, by definition, involves seeking. If you’re seeking, you’re curiously embarking on a path of purpose defined in part by your own initiative. Frederickson’s research and other studies demonstrate that curiosity also opens our attentional range and awakens agency instead of passivity.
Convert your limiting beliefs into expansive evidence of your potential. Sometimes the greatest detriment of our familiarity bias is our own self-regard. Even at the height of your career, afflictions like impostor’s syndrome and other limiting beliefs can hold you back from experiencing deeper fulfillment and creating greater impact. When you’re presented with an unfamiliar — yet potentially powerful — option, check what talents and strengths you possess. Acknowledge what could be possible for you and this opportunity.
Lean into discomfort to realize your inner power. In this Age of Distraction, we have endless opportunities to avoid discomfort and shy away from stressful choices. Unfortunately, this pattern can compound our anxiety and worsen matters in the long run. Next time you experience discomfort, try to sit with it. Imagine the worst-case “what-if” scenario and envision yourself or a situation transforming into something radiant and new — however irrational the image. Imagine the ground literally quaking open beneath your feet and you being able to fly by using your own wits and social resources. Keep watering that image like a seed incubating through a personal winter.
Volley your options to someone you trust and who’s adept at seeing matters from different angles. Sometimes we need another person who can ask questions that kindly challenge our assumptions and get us thinking in unfamiliar ways. When such a person presents a potential new way of looking at an “old” idea, open up and see what insight you might take away.
Disrupt your default. Try that maple bacon coffee. You’ll never know if you like (or don’t like it) until you try it. Challenge yourself every day for a week to observe one new detail in your familiar environment. Look around your work space and take ten seconds to observe an object your eyes have “tuned out” for months. On your regular commute, challenge yourself to observe one building or tree your eyes have relegated to the “familiar.” Philosopher-poet David Whyte writes, “Alertness is the discipline of the familiar.” He means our human attention can discipline us to become aware of what has become familiar again. Seeing your familiar job, work, endeavor, or spouse with fresh eyes goes a long way in sustaining your motivation to excel.
Disrupting our default patterns can be a little alarming. After all, most of us probably don’t like to think of ourselves as biased, predictable, or even routine. But by acknowledging our familiarity biases, we can better understand how they affect our decision-making process and engineer our lives. By tapping our innate but perhaps forgotten capacity for wonder, we can unravel old patterns and create new possibilities.