Striving for Social Justice Blog

The Powerful Bias That Makes You Ignorant: WYSIATI

We think we know someone or something when given a few clues. But do we? More often than not, our knowledge can be much further from the truth.

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

The Powerful Bias That Makes You Ignorant: WYSIATI

He has achieved good grades in university? Well, he'll make a fine doctor!

She is smart and firm? No doubt she'll make a great leader!.

They are unmarried and in their 50s? They must be really bad people not to be able to stay in a relationship.

We think we know someone or something when given a few clues. Yet, our knowledge can be much further from the truth. When there is a gap between our knowledge and the truth, we tend to make mistakes.

Based on the scenario above, it is natural for our minds to make quick judgement calls when given little bits of information. What if we found out more about these characters?

He achieved good grades in university and abuses animals.

She is smart, firm, and corrupt.

They are unmarried, in their 50s and are humanitarians working in conflict areas.

Now that we are given more information, has your judgement changed?

Poor judgement and decision making come from the influence of biases. There are hundreds of cognitive biases that influence people to make mistakes or act irrationally every single moment. The Cognitive Bias Codex beautifully summarises an extensive list of biases.

The Cognitive Bias Codex

Biases are mental shortcuts. The upside of mental shortcuts is that it helps you save time and energy. The downside of mental shortcuts is that you miss out on important information, significantly impacting your judgment and decisions. WYSIATI is one of the many cognitive biases.

What is WYSIATI?

WYSIATI is short for "What You See Is All There Is". This means our mind makes decisions based on the evidence presented to us and does not consider information or evidence that is missing.

In a real-life example, Facebook's algorithm curates a user's social media feed based on their behaviours on the platform. Echo chambers form when the user's only view posts that confirm their (possibly extreme) behaviour and beliefs.

In a way, WYSIATI is like the iceberg model. People only see what is on the surface and forget the largest part of the iceberg is submerged underneath.

Why does WYSIATI occur?

The Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow" describes the various ways how our conscious minds are (ir)rational and (un)reliable. According to Kahneman, our brain operates using two systems, simply named System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast and automatic. System 2 is slow and effortful.

Most of the time, people want the easy way of doing things, solving problems, seeking answers, etc. So, System 1 becomes our modus operandi, while System 2 remains dormant.

Herein lies the problem. Our minds love to build coherent stories, stories that make us feel comfortable and secure. It does not matter if the story's facts are inaccurate, incomplete or unreliable. It just needs to be coherent. When it is coherent, people believe that their stories are representative of the world.

That is the danger of relying too much on System 1. Subsequently, when judgements, decisions or impressions are based only on available information or coherent stories, important information goes missing or is not considered or is not analysed or processed in a meaningful way. This is WYSIATI.

WYSIATI and Society

None of us is free of WYSIATI. It is just how our minds work. Being aware of biases can stop us from making irrational decisions and taking foolish actions.

When we watch curated videos on social media, people begin to believe there is all there is to the topic/people/country/you name it. When people only consume articles, videos, news, etc., from only one perspective, it creates an echo chamber. It convinces people that most of the population agrees with you, and there are no other alternative perspectives. Or, if alternative views exist, it is considered fake or a threat to their existence.

This is dangerous. It is one of the reasons why the world's atrocities can have a polarising effect on society. Americans were divided when Trump became president.  Persecution against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, facilitated by Facebook. The divided opinions on the Ukraine-Russia war in many countries.

These are a few cases that have devastating consequences on millions of lives across the globe.

How to stop WYSIATI?

Stopping WYSIATI is not easy since it is the way our mind works.

The trick is to get System 2 working. One way to awaken System 2 is to nudge it to consider possibilities or alternatives.

Pose questions that point people towards missing information. Hint at the complexity of an issue. Challenge existing assumptions by asking, "What made you assume that?"

Another way is simply asking "Why?" or "How come?"—these questions power-on System 2 to recount their coherent stories with greater attention to the details. When the pieces don't make sense, the cohesive story breaks down, and people become more open-minded to other world views.

What You See Is Not All There Is (WYSINATI)

It can be tiring to remind ourselves that we don't know everything. Is knowing about WYSIATI enough?

It might be enough for a start. Knowing that we don't know everything keeps us humble and willing to learn continuously.

Our minds have the need to know. When we don't know we make assumptions -  they make us feel safer than not knowing. And we are pretty much always making assumptions. ~ Miguel Angel Ruiz, Mexican author.

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