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Over the years I observed in myself and others a tendency to get stuck (to be biased) in our views, thoughts and behaviour. This appears to be the result of cognitive biases in the mind resulting in adverse effects to ourselves and others as the examples below illustrate:

Case 1: Someone with end stage renal failure and had to undergo a graft placement in her arm to prepare her for haemodialysis. The first operation failed as there was non-stop bleeding and the surgeon re-do the surgery but that too failed with the same issue. A third attempt was scheduled but the surgeon warned if that fails too then the patient is considered unsuitable for haemodialysis. The patient’s daughter who was not medically trained, decided to check the daily medication the hospital was giving her mother and noticed that she was still on aspirin, a known anti-coagulant. Luckily, the discovery turned things around swiftly.

Case 2: Years ago there was a shipping accident involving a ferry ship called MV Sewol in South Korea. The tragedy would have been avoided if steps were taken to improve safety but those in charge assumed that it was business as usual.

Case 3: Analysts believed the current war between Ukraine and Russia arose due an overconfident Russia miscalculating its military capabilities and assuming it will be another “Crimea-like” walk in the park.

My question are as follows:

  1. What could be the cause(s) for such biases from the perspective of Buddhism?
  2. From Buddhist teachings, what can be done to reduce or stop such biases?

Please answer freely from any insights you may have. I believe this is a problem that has grave consequences to the world with its effects greatly magnified with modern technology. Therefore, any contribution or idea would be appreciated.

Appendix (I)

Some time back, I came across a study that linked mindfulness practice and its positive effects on cognitive biases. As it is popularly known, mindfulness practice has its roots in Buddhism. Thus, I suspect Buddhism compared to other religions may be able to suggest cause(s) and solution(s) to this problem which is plaguing us and the world.

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  • I’m voting to close this question because this question does not appear to be about Buddhist philosophy, teaching, and practice, within the scope defined in the help center. Sep 15, 2023 at 12:33
  • The question is about "cognitive bias". You provide a hyperlink to verywellmind.com/what-is-a-cognitive-bias-2794963 which says there are 12 types and 5 causes. So perhaps the question is too broad? Perhaps it would be a better or more focussed question if you selected and quoted one to three sentences from the article you hyperlinked, to identify a more specific topic.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 15, 2023 at 14:48
  • @DhammaDhatu Please don’t take this badly and correct me if I am wrong. But so far, I have never seen you with a follow-up question (like what ChrisW did) before attempting to close questions or downvote answers. If your intention is to create a forum atmosphere that is vibrant, that illuminates and deepens understanding in Buddhism, I am afraid your actions are having the opposite effects.
    – Desmon
    Sep 15, 2023 at 16:35
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    @ChrisW Thanks, I added an appendix to give a background as to how this question arose. Please let me know if there is anything else I should improve or elaborate.
    – Desmon
    Sep 15, 2023 at 16:35
  • Hi. The question contains questionable worldly narratives; which can result in political debate. Its not a Buddhist question. Buddhists see the world clearly. Sep 15, 2023 at 21:17

5 Answers 5

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This is a very good, very important question, touching on an essential topic. I wish more people asked this question, in fact I hope one day this will be common knowledge taught in schools.

The problem of biases/stereotypes/overgeneralizations/reifications is studied extensively in Mahayana Buddhism, albeit not always in the modern explicit manner. It comes up as part of Yogacara analysis of perception, Madhyamaka analysis of the nature of dharmas, and in pithy form as numerous anecdotes of historical teachers putting historical students in funny situations to make them see their biases.

That said, the way it is often with Buddhism, sometimes it's hard to see the forest behind the trees. Let's try and clarify it.

The teaching of Dependent Coarising or Pratityasamutpada explains development of the object-centric materialistic mind and eventual arising of the notion of self.

The initial phase of this process is accumulation of tendencies or samskaras. Tendencies are cyclic self-sustaining causal patterns. One particular kind of tendencies are behavioral-perceptual tendencies, when you see something you do something you get a reward. Or in more technical terms, recognition of a sign leads to associated behavior reinforcing the meaning of the sign. Like all tendencies, these tendencies evolve through natural selection.

Long story short, our entire mind is made of billions of such tendencies trained to do pattern recognition. Each pattern and every sign is essentially a generalization. It always boils down a bunch of evidence to "this is what it means". So generalization is the very principle our mind is made of. Our entire mind is generalization upon generalization, association upon association, recognition upon recognition, which are all different flavors of the same principle.

Naturally, for a sentient being who's every idea about its world is some kind of generalization, it never comes as something to doubt. From the very childhood we learn that mommy is always like that, daddy is always like this, when it rains it pours, the dog's nose is cold, and so on and so forth - everything we learn about the world is a generalization. Why would we question them?

And so by the time we are adults, we have a certain idea of what the world is like, how things work, what's possible and what's not, what's good and bad, whom we can trust, what signs indicate the person is smart or stupid or kind or whatever. And every single one of these observations is a generalization.

What's even worse, we generally want these generalizations to fit with each other, because we want them to connect into a consistent model of the world as we know it. Having inconsistencies and contradictions is uncomfortable for a sentient being who's mind is made from information. Contradictions destroy meaning. So sentient beings prefer to avoid them.

And so by the certain age we start filtering our new observations/generalizations to only accept ones that fit with what we know, and drop the ones that contradict what we know.

On the surface it seems like a greatly efficient mechanism, generalize our observations so we don't have to waste time analyzing things again and again - instead as soon as we see a familiar pattern - boom! and we know what it means. And we don't waste time processing things that don't make sense given what we know - we build on top of our knowledge and experience. Sounds great!

But then of course we get to all those issues you describe in your question and more. It is the flip side of intelligence, it's like, the same power that gives us ability to be intelligent creatures, is a curse that makes us blind.

The special term used in Madhyamaka (in English translations) is "reification". Reification is when we take an observation/generalization and elevate it to a status of "this is the way the world is". In other words, we confuse the map with the territory. We think the map is the territory and then we stop looking at the territory at all! All we see is the map!

And so a lot of teaching and practice of Mahayana Buddhism is to learn to undo that habit and get back to seeing the world as it is and not as we know it.

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  • Good stuff….while I agreed with @OyaMist about ignorance and the five hindrances being potential causes. But I could not reconcile with the fact that younger people appeared to be less affected. E.g. young children adapt effortlessly to mobile gadgets while older seniors struggled. I was trying to understand what was causing the mind to become more rigid as we grow older. Your answer hits the spot.
    – Desmon
    Sep 17, 2023 at 7:26
  • You mentioned about tendencies, I wonder if it is similar to the concept of anusaya? Sorry, I know it is Theravadin. I am still trying to understand the exact mechanism how these tendencies worsen our objectivity, situational-awareness and mindfulness as we grow older. Is it because of the presence of mental defilements (asavas)? Perhaps, I will ask another question. Thanks again.
    – Desmon
    Sep 17, 2023 at 7:28
  • It is ignorance, my friend, the good old avidya that is the cause.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 17, 2023 at 8:55
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What you describe as a biased mind or sticky mind, and also cognitive biases, are part of what I would describe as a mental model, or a sort of mentally constructed world one lives in, or a mental reality.

A lot of these cognitive biases have a connection to the mental idea of the self.

From your quoted article:

Actor-observer bias: This is the tendency to attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people's behaviors to internal causes. For example, you attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.

Confirmation bias: This is favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.

Optimism bias: This bias leads you to believe that you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.

Self-serving bias: This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. For example, when you win a poker hand it is due to your skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds, while when you lose it is due to getting dealt a poor hand.

The Dunning-Kruger effect: This is when people who believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. For example, when they can't recognize their own incompetence.

So, just imagine that. A person has a mental model, or mentally constructed world, in which he is the hero, highly optimistic about his probability for future success, thinking he has the best opinions and beliefs, not blaming himself when things go wrong, and believing himself to be smart and competent, without being able to recognize his own incompetence.

There are two elements here - a "mentally constructed world" (loka, or sankhara loka, as labelled by Piya Tan) and the "mental idea of the self" (atta). They both have basis in objectification-classification or reification (papanca).

Please see this question and this answer for mentally constructed world (loka, or sankhara loka).

Please see this answer for objectification-classification (papanca). This answer also shows the connection to the mental idea of the self (atta).

Also, please see this answer to understand how all of these are connected to dependent origination, which is the main Buddhist model of how the mind-body system works and how it results in the birth of a being, who lives and suffers.

Hence, everything you have investigated - cognitive bias, sticky mind, biased mind, self-centered thinking, are all closely linked to Buddhism, as taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon. The links above contain all the relevant sutta references.

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    Thanks for this insight and the links. It does throw up a few questions. I will try to consolidate them and perhaps put up another question related to this topic.
    – Desmon
    Sep 18, 2023 at 13:34
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All these cases lead me to read:

AN10.61:1.1: “Mendicants, it is said that no first point of ignorance is evident, before which there was no ignorance, and afterwards it came to be.
AN10.61:1.2: And yet it is evident that there is a specific condition for ignorance.
AN10.61:2.1: I say that ignorance is fueled by something, it’s not unfueled.
AN10.61:2.2: And what is the fuel for ignorance?
AN10.61:2.3: You should say: ‘The five hindrances.’
AN10.61:2.4: I say that the five hindrances are fueled by something, they’re not unfueled.
AN10.61:2.5: And what is the fuel for the five hindrances?
AN10.61:2.6: You should say: ‘The three kinds of misconduct.’
AN10.61:2.7: I say that the three kinds of misconduct are fueled by something, they’re not unfueled.
AN10.61:2.8: And what is the fuel for the three kinds of misconduct?
AN10.61:2.9: You should say: ‘Lack of sense restraint.’
AN10.61:2.10: I say that lack of sense restraint is fueled by something, it’s not unfueled.
AN10.61:2.11: And what is the fuel for lack of sense restraint?
AN10.61:2.12: You should say: ‘Lack of mindfulness and situational awareness.’ ...

And that is enough for me.

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The link you cited says,

If you had to think about every possible option when making a decision, it would take a lot of time to make even the simplest choice. Because of the sheer complexity of the world around you and the amount of information in the environment, it is necessary sometimes to rely on some mental shortcuts that allow you to act quickly.

Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, but it is these mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, that often play a major contributing role. While they can often be surprisingly accurate, they can also lead to errors in thinking.

It seems to me that, for lay-people at least, Buddhist doctrine gives you a better set of "heuristics" -- i.e. "decision-making tools" or "lens through which to filter".

So for example, someone might ask,

  1. (I don't know what the doctor's problem was, but kudos to the daughter or muditā)
  2. Can I increase profit by overloading the cargo?
  3. Can I increase profit by winning this war?

Whereas instead I think that Buddhist doctrine encourages us to ask questions like,

  • Is this harmless (safe)?
  • Is this beneficial?
  • Is this kind?
  • Is this ethical?
  • Is this skilful?
  • Is this motivated by anger or by avarice?
  • Is this cessation?

These are (in my opinion) a "better" set of heuristics. The cognitive bias inherent in using them is a a bias towards ethics and kindness and so on -- or towards "liberation".

Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so also this Dhamma and Discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation.


In summary, you wrote,

This appears to be the result of cognitive biases in the mind resulting in adverse effects to ourselves and others.

It seems to me that one who "sees danger in the slightest fault" (AN 3.88) could still be described as having cognitive bias, but that bias is towards reducing "adverse effects".

Also the definition you cited starts with,

A cognitive bias is a systematic error

I'm not sure that the type of bias which I'm attributing to Buddhist doctrine is in fact an "error" -- if so it's at least of a different category, a different type of imperfection.

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  • Yes, a better set of heuristics is definitely one solution to overcome these biases. It makes me feel so glad that Buddhism is not a goody-goody religion but one that can give a solid science-driven rationale and justification for adopting certain virtuous behaviour. Unfortunately, I am accepting @AndriyVolkov answer as it explains both the cause and the possible solution as well as how the process unfolds. Thank you.
    – Desmon
    Sep 17, 2023 at 7:52
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What are the cause(s) of a biased or sticky mind?

The Buddha had the Divine Eye, a psychic power, which allowed him to understand the finer points of the world, its people & their motivations. In contrast, the Arahant disciple Sariputta, did not have the Divine Eye, therefore occasionally made errors of judgment, such as in MN 97, guiding the Brahmin Dhanañjani towards attainment of the Brahma World, rather than guiding the Brahmin Dhanañjani towards the attainment of stream-entry. Sariputta did this because he did not know the mental capacity of Dhanañjani, unlike the Buddha.

Case 1: The patient’s daughter who was not medically trained, decided to check the daily medication the hospital was giving her mother and noticed that she was still on aspirin, a known anti-coagulant. Luckily, the discovery turned things around swiftly.

The above is very common. I myself did a similar act, when I once simply went the public library & researched medications used for thyroid conditions. There were three different medicines & one caused persistent cough in 1/3 of people. I then took my mother to a different doctor, who then referred my mother to different specialist, who then prescribed my mother a different & appropriate medication. This simply may occur for many speculative reasons, which are pure speculation & unrelated to Buddhism, Only a person with the Divine Eye could precisely assess why my mother's former doctor & her former specialist were so medically negligent in giving her the wrong thyroid medication & then continuing to give her anti-biotics for her new developed persistent cough .

Currently in the world doctors are not free to practice medicine as they wish. At least in most Western countries, doctors are highly regulated in how they practice & what medicines they can prescribe. This was acutely evident with the Covid-19 plandemic. For example, my mother's doctor was a devout Christian & was also originally against the mRNA experimental vaccine. But later, due to pressure & orders from his employer, he changed his view. Today, for example, merely general practitioners are prescribing anti-depressants as though these medicines are like candy. Previously, only a specialist psychiatrist was allowed to prescribe anti-depressants. In short, medicine doctors are now heavily subject to industry regulation & political correctness. They are no longer allowed to intelligently practice medicine. Many are now no different to drug dealers, just prescribing party drugs (antidepressants) to anyone who asks. This causes many of them to become irrational. Note: this answer is not really related to Buddhist philosophy because it is speculative, even though it does give a speculative view about how loss of morals affect judgement. The Buddha taught the nutriment of the five hindrances is the three unskillful actions (AN 10.61). Thus doctors have mental hindrances to making the right decisions because their ethical behaviour & personal integrity has become worse.

Case 3: Analysts believed the current war between Ukraine and Russia arose due an overconfident Russia miscalculating its military capabilities and assuming it will be another “Crimea-like” walk in the park.

There are no objective analysts above. These so-called analysts are simply engaged in political propaganda. There is no war between Ukraine & Russia. All that is occurring is a "Special Military Operation". Since 2014, Ukrainian military has been murdering people in the Donbass. Ukraine did not abide by the 2015 Minsk Agreements (also NATO). Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has not kept its promise to not expand beyond Germany. NATO even attempted to include Georgia in NATO, which is not even near the Atlantic Ocean. Russia is not over-confident. Russia has engaged in a strategy designed to minimise loss of life & damage. It is Ukraine doing things like blowing up its own bridges. Russian is conducting a ground military operation rather than all out war, such as using aircraft bomber to destroy Ukraine. Ukraine is being supplied weapons & logistics by the West, which is prolonging the Special Military Operation. Ukraine has lost at least 400,000 soldiers, according to objective accounts. The Russians simply play games of advance & retreat & suck the Ukrainians into ambushes and slaughter them or make them surrender. The Ukrainians are being slaughtered in a NATO Proxy War yet we have so-called Buddhists promoting NATO propaganda that results in supporting more & more deaths & damage. Russian is now occupying most of Eastern Ukraine and will probably control all of the land, in the future, east of the Dnieper River. Plus it will probably control Western Ukraine politically & completely demilitarize Ukraine.

As soon as the Special Military Operation began, Ukraine should have surrendered. As soon as the Special Military Operation began, all Buddhists without cognitive biases in the mind should have supported a Ukrainian surrender. But, no. There were Buddhist chatsites with moderators & monks demonizing Putin & Russia. This indirectly supported the massive loss of life that has now occurred, which is around 500,000 people. Ukraine can never win therefore they should have immediately surrendered & granted Russia its request that Ukraine remain neutral & not connected to NATO.

Today, Western Buddhism is saturated with Cultural Marxists who hate Christianity & Islam. When Russia & Hezbollah saved the oldest Christian towns & monasteries in Syria from NATO-Gulf-State backed ISIS & Al Qaeda, hardly any Buddhists cared. Western Buddhist monks & nuns were feverously cheering for Hillary Clinton, who with Obama & NATO, destroyed Libya & attempted to do the same to Syria (refer to this BSE link from 2016). In December 2016, when the oldest most pluralistic city in the world, Aleppo, was liberated from Obama's & Clinton's proxy forces, a certain cabal of Western monks & nuns were literally lamenting Clinton's loss to Mr Trump.

In conclusion, the Buddha taught most people are subject to ignorance. Also, those who have no ignorance still cannot understand the world completely if they do not have the Divine Eye. This is why there is cognitive bias.

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  • I believe the Divine Eye has its limitation. We can argue that the Buddha should have known Venerable Sariputta would not have guided the Brahmin into the fruits of liberation through the Divine Eye faculty and given him clearer instructions. In any case, the Venerable is merely giving the Brahmin what he yearns for. Is this right or wrong? Perhaps, I could be posed this as a separate question.
    – Desmon
    Sep 16, 2023 at 7:02
  • Lastly, I am neither for or against the Russia/Ukraine conflict. I just want to find a way to help myself and others to make better decisions by overcoming our cognitive biases using Buddhist approaches. I believe this is something the world needs badly to prevent problems such as misdiagnosis, bad operational decisions that cost lives and ongoing conflicts that inflicts tremendous casualties/costs with neither side willing to back down.
    – Desmon
    Sep 16, 2023 at 7:02

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