No, the World Wouldn't be a Better Place if Everyone were Just Like You:

Updated: Aug 3

Understanding Cognitive Bias and CBT-based Strategies to Help you View the World Through a Different Lens






Whether it be during a therapy session or when talking with friends, some of the most common statements that I seem to hear centre around the desperate and unrelenting need for us to understand why other people think or act as they do.


"Why does no one else seem to care what anyone else thinks of them when they don't complete their work as well as I do?"


"Why do other people do and say things that I would never dream of doing or saying?"


"How can people be so thoughtless?"


These are just some of the questions that seem to be born from so much righteous anger, disbelief, and frustration. If I'm being totally honest, they are also some of the questions that I used to ask myself too. But, where did it all get me? Cynical, resentful, and genuinely burnt out is where, and as I write this, I know I'm not alone. So, this is how I changed my mind, how I assist my clients to change their minds, and how you can help yourself to do the same.



But, the World Would be a Much Better Place if Everyone Thought and Acted Like Me!


Perhaps.... but wouldn't it also be really boring? Ask yourself, genuinely, how often do you you think that everything would be better if everyone had the same beliefs and opinions as you; behaved as you do? Chances are it's probably something that crosses your mind quite a lot. Even though, fundamentally, we know we are different, we seem to just assume that the colleague we work with, our partners, our friends, the person that just cut us up on the motorway are perceiving the world in exactly the same way that we are. Therefore, we further assume that we know what people are thinking and feeling, and why they are behaving in a certain way, right?


Well, no, in fact it couldn't be further from the truth. Assuming the commonness of our own perceptions, opinions, and judgements is one of the most frequently occurring cognitive biases; false consensus effect, and it can be a very harmful way for us to think. What is more helpful then is to remember that there will be many different perspectives on exactly the same situation or experience. Approximately 7.8 billion perspectives actually....




What is a Cognitive Bias and How are They Formed?





The concept of cognitive bias can be easily demonstrated with the age old question, "Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?" It's a simple way of realising that everybody sees things differently, depending upon who they are. Carl Jung neatly placed everyone in two categories; the pessimists, (glass half empty) and the optimists, (glass half full), but, this explanation is too simplistic when we seek to explore the intricacies of human experiences and behaviours.


Everyone exhibits cognitive biases. They might be seen when we only pay attention to articles in the news that confirm our opinions, when we blame outside factors when things don't go our way, and most pertinent to this blog; assuming that everyone else shares our values, our opinions, or our beliefs. In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (CBH), we may call these biases mind-reading errors, maximising, or dichotomous (black and white) thinking.


Cognitive biases are systematic errors in our thinking which occur when we are trying to quickly and effectively make sense of the constant information received by the brain from the environment around us and may occur due to issues with memory, attention-span, and other mental mistakes. Our brains are incredibly powerful, but they are also inherently hardwired, predictable, and lazy; often taking shortcuts, simplifying information, and offering up quick fixes to ensure that we function as 'optimally' as possible.




The Map is Not the Territory





First extolled by Alfred Korzybski in 1933, the founders of neuro linguistic programming (NLP), Richard Bandler and John Grinder developed the concept of the "map" and the "territory" to more effectively explain how cognitive biases come to be formed and how deleterious they can be to effective interpersonal communication .


The map consists of our brain, our internal environment and everything that we 'know,' whilst the territory consists of all things outside of us; our environment, other people within it, and the sensory information that is fed back to us under the guise of touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound. The map and the territory interlink to form our 'subjective reality,' but first we filter information according to what we already 'know,' within our map, distorting, disregarding, and deleting that which doesn't conform. These tasks are completed at an often unconscious level after which, our perceptions or 'subjective reality' are formed.


NLP borrows heavily from the Humanistic paradigm of psychology and the Existentialist philosophy upon which Carl Rogers built his theories and his person centred approach to counselling. Existentialists propose that no two people are the same, and NLP theory also follows this philosophy. Therefore, another person's map, their experience of their territory, and thus their perceptions or 'subjective reality' also, cannot be the same as ours.




"Change the Map, you Change the World"





When do you find yourself becoming the most irritated with other people? Is it whilst driving, in the supermarket, or do your family drive you up the wall? Many people disclose that one of the most challenging environments to function within is the workplace. Thrown together with a ragtag group of people who you would maybe never choose to be friends with or even say hello to can sometimes feel like the most arduous of environments.


CBT helps us to understand one another's differences. It encourages us to try to look at things from another's perspective, to recognise, rationalise, challenge, and change our negative automatic thoughts and judgements about others, to question where our feelings of frustration and anger might be coming from, and to give us the all important choices in the ways in which we choose to behave or react toward these things. Lastly we are offered the opportunity to exchange our old ways for thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that might more more useful, healthy, and life-affirming for us.


So, here are some simple and effective ways that we can begin to reduce the stress, anxiety, and other negative affects that our cognitive biases may be causing us.



Pre-Visualise:





Whatever situation you are about to walk into; whether it be work, an important meeting, a date, a party, whichever, just stop for a moment before you walk into that space, take a deep breath, and visualise what you are about to experience. Chances are, your brain will show you the people and things that you 'know' you are about to see.


Now imagine this.... Imagine that you are about to go into an important meeting with the CEO of a huge Tech Corporation, what does this person you are about to meet look like in your mind?


Please don't judge yourself for the image that most likely just popped into your mind. If the person in the image was male, it doesn't mean that your are sexist or that your feminist beliefs need some work; it's just the perfect example of our cognitive bias at work; our minds showing us the image that we've seen a million times before, thus what we 'know' to be 'true!'


So, from now on, whatever situation you imagine before you walk into work, a meeting, a date, a party; flip that image to the complete opposite in your mind. By thinking about alternate outcomes, options, and realities, our brains are primed to expect the unexpected and this is a powerful first step toward undoing our unconscious, cognitive biases.





Know Yourself: A Little Introspection goes a Long Way


When you understand and accept that everyone's reality is purely subjective, it's helpful to begin to ask yourself, who are you? This isn't intended as a fluffy question about your favourite colour or food; it's all about your core values.


Our core values represent our chosen compass in life. They are the opinions that we stand up for, the things that give us purpose, the morals and ethics that guide us toward being the person we want to be.

We may have chosen them for ourselves, but more likely they have been instilled into us by our parents, peers, our culture, society, or religion.


Our core values are individual, important, and meaningful to us, but this doesn't mean that our values are right, and we should not expect that everyone else should live according to our unwritten rules.


Some questions that you might like to ask yourself might be:


  • What are my three strongest values?

  • Where did these values come from?

  • How do these values help me to be the person I want to be?

  • Are there elements of these values that might be unhelpful to the person I want to be?

  • Do I automatically assume that just because I have these values, that everybody else should too?

  • How would I feel if someone else judged my words or behaviours according to their values?

  • Is it fair to judge other people for theirs?


Getting to know yourself is not for the faint hearted, and acknowledging your failings, vulnerabilities, discriminations, and insecurities takes a tremendous amount of courage. But, doing so can help you to consider what makes you, you, and can profoundly impact on your relationships, both with yourself and others.




Common Humanity: Fostering Empathy and Self-compassion






Embracing the concept of common humanity and developing empathy for others doesn't entail us shooting for the stars. It's not about forgiveness, normalising other people's poor behaviour, or acceptance of toxic environments, it's about recognising that that all of us face the same emotional struggles throughout our lives. If there's one thing that most of us do share, it's the capacity to feel the incomprehensible pain of loss, to feel sad, guilty, shameful, and sometimes, that we do not belong.


Say for example a client had related their negative thoughts and feelings about their job or their colleagues and I had responded with, "What else did you expect when you took on a stressful and demanding job like that?" Well, firstly.... I'd be a pretty terrible therapist, but what I'm trying to convey is that statements like that invalidate our common experiences. They sever the connection of shared humanity.


In contrast, a validating reply that seeks to maintain the connection of shared humanity could sound like this; "I know that it can be really tough when you're working so hard to make a difference, but you feel like nothing that you're doing is helping. How do you think can we go about making your job more tolerable together?"


When we connect with others through our shared struggles, think before we speak, empathise with, and react to others with compassion, it allows us to gain some idea of what it must be like to be in their position and to see things through their eyes. When we open ourselves to considering a different perspective to our own, it allows us to think, feel, and behave more rationally during those times where we would otherwise just want to scream, lash out, ruminate, or think and act in other unhelpful ways.


We must also keep in mind that becoming more empathetic towards others requires us to face our own cold, hard truths, so showing compassion toward yourself is just as important as developing it for others. If you find an opinion or judgement you've unearthed particularly difficult to swallow, always remember to be kind to yourself too. There's a reason you think that way, but if it would be more helpful not to, then you have the power to change it.





Change your Perspective





A key exercise within CBT is to try to look past your perceptions of another's omissions, words, or actions. Instead of immediately concluding that the people you work with are not doing their job as well as you because they are lazy cretins, lacking in pride for their work, and thinking that you're just uptight, (known within CBT as mind-reading errors or magnification), instead question the evidence that you have for those thoughts.


Sometimes when we are trapped in our old maps, we may be entangled in negative emotions, which can make us continually think and act in irrational ways. Our resulting negative affect or moods can often overwhelm us. But, standing back and looking at the bigger picture, disengaging our 'emotional mind' and applying our 'thinking mind' to all situations will allow us to respond to what is happening around us more helpfully and effectively.


Could it be that your colleague is going through a tough time in their personal life and simply cannot focus? Could they be less resilient to stress than you are? Are they leaving their work uncompleted because they simply cannot stand to stay there a minute longer because they fear for their mental health? Is the person who just cut you up on the motorway rushing home to get to their sick child? Not everyone is us, and they might need our kindness and understanding instead of our judgement and admonishment.


Some helpful questions to consider might be:


  • How am I interpreting the situation, what meaning am I giving it?

  • How am I reacting to this situation?

  • Am I dealing with facts or opinions?

  • How can I look at it differently?

  • How would others who are not emotionally affected see it?

  • Are the thoughts I have helpful or unhelpful to me?

  • What is the bigger picture here?


Coming at the problem from a different angle can help us to adjust our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours to more positive and realistic ways of being and doing so that our moods, emotions, and overall lives can change for the better.




Radical Acceptance and Self-soothing


I do get it, I'm still a realist, I promise; because even I know that there are times when training our brain to be more accepting and positive just will not cut it. Let's face it, sometimes people just act like jerks for no reason at all. But, what positives are there in sitting there fuming about it?


Acknowledge your feelings, label them as annoyed, frustrated, angry, accept why you feel that way, and then ask yourself the following questions:


  • Are their words or behaviours severely detrimental to my life?

  • Would letting go of this hurt me or would it make life easier?

  • Can I find a way to protect myself more from the effects of these words and behaviours that would make my life more peaceful?

  • What could I do or