Understanding Cognitive Biases So We Can Listen to Survivors Better
By Carter Timon, MBDS | Lead Social Science Researcher, CHILD USA
Cognitive biases are tendencies to make certain decisions or behave in certain ways. Cognitive biases are predictable behavioral or decision patterns that all humans share. Often, these biases use mental shortcuts to make decision-making faster and easier. And these shortcuts are usually good. They help us make decisions quickly and accurately so that we survive in the wild (they are evolutionarily adaptive!). But, because they rely on shortcuts, cognitive biases sometimes lead us into making big mistakes.
Below are three cognitive biases which often get in the way when we try to listen to the experiences of survivors of child abuse and neglect. So even when we know the facts about abuse and we have worked to unlearn harmful social norms or beliefs, we may still find ourselves leaning toward some incorrect and unhelpful conclusions about survivors’ stories. Let’s jump right in.
“I Have to Solve This”: Action Bias and Ambiguity Aversion
First on our list is the tendency to feel like you have to “Solve the Problem” that’s presented to you. This is called ambiguity aversion and a bias toward taking action. Ambiguity aversion is what happens when things become uncertain, like when a claim about a crime is made and we don’t know who to believe or what to do next: we become extremely uncomfortable and immediately begin searching for ways to eliminate this discomfort. Typically, this means we try to re-establish certainty (by making a decision, changing our circumstances, or finding new information). Action bias is the tendency to choose to act whenever we have the option between doing something and doing nothing. So, when we feel that ambiguity aversion (aka the uncertainty), we tend to seek some behavior or action that can help “solve” the ambiguity because we are uncomfortable sitting in those feelings of uncertainty.
When survivors tell their story, particularly if they are a close friend or relative of yours (and research shows, this is who they tell), our ambiguity sensors go up. The world becomes uncertain: what we thought was a generally safe, interesting place to live is being exposed as rather dangerous and hurtful to our friend. That friend is showing us a side we never knew, and this makes us doubt what we know. We want to take action to try to solve their problems, or we may attempt to reject their story so that the uncertainty their story introduces goes away. Both of these knee-jerk reactions are unhelpful. Research shows that survivors often simply want to be able to tell their story and be believed.
When a survivor tells you their story, avoid your action bias; refrain from doing anything and just listen deeply. Follow their lead and attempt to be supportive. Don’t attempt to change their story so that you feel more comfortable. Your action bias is trying to get you to act, but it’s time to sit and listen.
“It’s Their Fault”: Fundamental Attribution Error
A second important bias is the tendency to think “It’s Their Fault.” This is called the fundamental attribution error (FAE). All people seem to exhibit this. It is the tendency, when evaluating or judging somebody’s behavior, thoughts, or relationships, to come up with personality-based explanations rather than situational ones, even when situational explanations are the real cause. That means that we tend to think people do things because that’s the way they are, not because of anything that’s going on around them. And this makes us miss important situational forces that shape human behavior. For example, if you’re really hungry and tired after work and you say something grouchy to your roommate, they are more likely to think that you are a mean person rather than (the more accurate explanation) that you just need some rest and a good snack.
When a survivor decides to tell you their story, keep the FAE in mind: It was not some trait of the survivor that caused them to be abused. Their abuse didn’t happen because of the way they are. The blame lies with the abuser and the situation that enabled the abuser (this includes institutions, infrastructures, and social norms which the abuser uses to their advantage).
“They Would Never do That”: Halo Effects
Our third and final tendency is the feeling of “They Would Never Do That.” This is known as the Halo Effect. Halo effects are similar to the FAE (our 2nd example) in that they are mistaken assessments about someone’s personality. A halo effect is taking one side of a person that you have seen and extending that to be their entire personality (we do this to simplify contradictory information about someone in mind). This gives us the (false) sense that we “know who they are,” usually just from a little bit of personality data, like watching how they interact with their mother or how they treat their pets. For example, if you show people a picture of a war criminal being kind to a small child, they tend to think the picture is fake. The brain asserts that someone who does horrible things cannot also do nice things.
This is uncomfortable but completely necessary to learn: People are complex and often contradictory. They behave differently in different situations throughout the day and the lifespan. A single glimpse into a person is rarely enough to assess a personality. It is not the single moments of action that describe a person, but their patterns over time. And most crucially, a person can be sweet to you and an abuser to someone else. When a survivor tells you their story, and you personally know the abuser, do not fall prey to the halo effect and say, “They would never do that!” Instead, listen to the survivor, support them, and remember that abusers are usually only abusive in some of their relationships, not all.
What Can You Do Moving Forward?
Remember: cognitive biases are all natural and normal parts of human behavior. We will always feel their pull in our thinking. But we can learn to recognize them and avoid their conclusions, and in turn, be fully supportive when a survivor tells us their story. This is precisely why it is important to have evidence and well-researched facts in hand when dealing with abuse and neglect. These facts provide the proper corrections for when our intuitions and private mental calculations lead us astray.
Further Reading on Biases
1. Baron, Jonathan. 2008. Thinking and Deciding (4th). Cambridge University Press.
2. Eagleman, David. 2011. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Pantheon Books.
3. Gladwell, Malcolm. 2019. Talking to Strangers. Penguin Books.
4. Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
5. Levitin, Daniel J. 2014. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Penguin Books.
 The bystander effect is an exclusion to this rule, and merits full discussion elsewhere. See the “Further Reading” section above for more.