Your Brain is Biased, and Your Good Intentions are Lying to You

How Your Mind’s Hidden Shortcuts Sabotage Your Best Efforts

Elumar De Sa
4 min readJan 25, 2024
Photo by Vinicius "amnx" Amano on Unsplash

We all like to think we objectively assess situations before making reasoned choices. But mental blindspots often distort intentions hidden beneath our awareness. Even the most rational among us get trapped in biases wiring our brains over eons of evolution.

Consider the cautionary tale of Stan, people operations manager at a thriving tech firm. By all accounts a fair-minded leader dedicated to nurturing talent, Stan was blindsided by a bias in his recent promotion decision. Though two internal candidates — Pari and Alicia — objectively matched the new director role’s skills and experience, Stan subconsciously favored an external applicant named Greg from the outset.

Where did Stan’s hidden bias come from? Psychologists reveal even the best-intentioned decision makers carry prejudices shaped by upbringing, cultural norms and past experiences outside conscious thought. In Stan’s case, his mentor had been an outgoing, charismatic leader riding bikes and playing golf with the boss in his spare time. Greg’s outgoing personality and biking hobby better matched Stan’s mental prototype of a leader.

Over the years, Stan’s bias solidified as he attributed his own rise partly to bonding with higher-ups during off-site athletics. Though harmful and inaccurate, this bias fused personal memories with snap judgments on leadership capability. Once in motion, the prejudice became a blinder — amplifying vague “culture fit” doubts on serious candidates Pari and Alicia while minimizing Greg’s legitimate weaknesses.

The insidious danger with hidden biases is they distort intentions imperceptibly until damage is done. Had Stan’s team not confronted him with equity concerns, he may have perpetuated the promotion bias indefinitely, depriving the company of diverse leadership. Only through courageous transparency on biased blind spots can we hope to course-correct intentions before they undermine ethics.

Psychologists reveal how such affinity and confirmation biases warp intentions despite our conscious values. Once beliefs take root, the mind spotlights confirming data and filters out contradictions without us realizing. We easily become convinced our biased intentions are rational.

Or examine the cautionary tale of Robin, founder of a non-profit dedicated to serving vulnerable youth populations. Though genuinely well-intentioned, Robin perpetuated harm by unconsciously dismissing minority perspectives. Having benefitted from privilege, she remained blind to marginalization faced by communities of color.

Her bias emerged in subtle ways — prioritizing white voices on diversity panels, allowing insensitive comments from senior management, and placing minority staff in junior roles without upward mobility. Though the organization helped many in need, Robin’s unexamined partialities shaped an internal culture that further marginalized minority team members.

Psychologists reveal even the most woke-presenting among us carry prejudices shaped by our cultural ecosystem and life journeys outside conscious thought. Like people unconsciously donating more when disaster victims match their own ethnicity, an ingroup sympathy bias tacitly shapes perspectives despite explicitly proclaimed values of universal human dignity.

Other tripwires snag the best-intentioned. The halo effect causes initial positive impressions of someone to color future judgments of their behaviors. Or moral licensing, where past ethical acts subconsciously make us feel ‘credited’ to later act in ways misaligned with beliefs. Once in motion, biases self-perpetuate, leading us to seek out ‘evidence’ confirming our assumptions were justified all along. With awareness, we can recognize blind spots before they undermine our ability to serve divided communities with wisdom and justice.

The mind’s blindspots emerge in subtle ways. The more we believe ourselves rational, the more dangerous our ignorant assumptions. As philosopher Charles Handy said, “It is not what we think that gets us into trouble, it is what we think we think.” Once entrenched, biases self-replicate as we seek out echo chambers that validate our presumed good intentions.

While mental pitfalls await even the best of intentions, self-awareness provides an antidote if we cultivate it. Tools like journaling about reactions to people over time can reveal prejudicial patterns we unconsciously absorb from culture. Mindfulness practices help objectively notice gut reactions without reacting, creating space to examine them. Seeking candid feedback from trusted sources gives the external perception of blind spots we cannot see internally.

Resources like Harvard’s Project Implicit offer eye-opening assessments of hidden biases around race, gender, disabilities and more. Understanding specific bias types through reputable education gives language and meaning to intuitions often felt but not fully comprehended.

And inspiration comes from those addressing personal biases with courage and compassion once recognized. An accomplished lawyer reveals how journaling on resistance to a female superior exposed paternalistic assumptions requiring a conscious effort to overcome to become an empowering ally. A police officer describes mindfully releasing reflexive profiling behaviors after departmental bias training, vastly improving community relations. A professor recounts feedback from marginalized students feeling invalidated, prompting revamping curriculums with diverse voices.

While the mind’s pitfalls ensnare us all at times, intention can align with ethics through self-inquiry, tools for conscious awareness, and communal support in humbly admitting blind spots, for it is not failure that defines character but willingness to confront inner shadows with wisdom and rectify our course where necessary. In this spirit, progress prevails.

Let’s face it, we’re all a bit morally messy. Share your shadow-self struggles below and remember, you’re not alone in this darkness.
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Elumar De Sa

Apple Manager & Future Author of 'The Dark Side of Intention' | Bridging Technology and Ethics for Conscious Decision-Making and Ethical Engagement