A Deep Dive in Subconscious Thinking


Throughout the day, we make hundreds of decisions. For many of these decisions, we are completely unaware that we are even deciding on an action. Our body goes on to autopilot and we simply follow its orders.

On a deeper level, most of us are unaware of the thoughts, buried beliefs, prejudices and biases that influence our decisions, and therefore, most people are unconscious of how they impact our decisions. Even when consciously about making a decision, these hidden biases influence good decision making, consequently enabling a ripple effect from that very decision. In a leadership role, that ripple effect can result in multiple consequences in an organisation.

When operating in international relations, your decisions - if left unchecked for inherent biases, can lead to perpetual distortion, inaccurate judgement, and illogical interpretation. All of these are key ingredients in the widening of cultural rifts, the deepening of global disparity gaps, and the general intensification of political upheavals. 

These ‘glitches’ in our brain, as social psychology and behavioural science helps to explain, occur because individuals tend to create their own “subjective reality” from their perception to inputs. As a result, our construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate our behaviour in the social world. This is why cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.  

As diplomatic practitioners, we need to be aware of how cognitive biases alter our thinking and decision-making, paving the way for a more globally conscious international citizenry to arrive at a more politically, socially, economically, and environmentally cognizant conclusion. If you’re curious to know just how many of these irrational fallacies exists (over 175!) that can take a toll on your decisions, it might be worth exploring the so-called cognitive bias codex displayed below.

It could be overwhelming to visualise all that could “go wrong” in our brain which is beyond our control. The good news is that for every cognitive bias, there is a reason for it. Primarily, our biases exist to save time and energy in brain power. It will be very difficult for us to solve every problem we encounter in our minds. Nothing will ever get done and our brain will go into overdrive to the point of collapse. Our pre-existing bias is like a decision-making shortcut to help us reach a conclusion faster without taking too much time to process the information. Decision-making, therefore, becomes a lot easier in our day-to-day life which can be useful. However, these mental shortcuts are a trade-off to the actual reality, which can lead to mental errors. Not every decision we make will be correct and we must learn to be mindful of what is real and what is perceived. While we are unable to eliminate our cognitive biases entirely (after all, they do not stem from our conscious selves), knowing its existence and acting on it can help us control the degree by which they influence our decisions. 

Cognitive Bias in Action

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.
— Willard V. Quine and J.S. Ullian The Web of Belief

Did you know that after the 2016 U.S. election, 13% of Americans blocked, unfriended or unfollowed a friend on social media due to opposing political views? This is a prime example of what constitutes a confirmation bias, which implies that our mind tends to hunt and cherry pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas, while ignoring contradicting evidence. In other words, we tend to agree with people who agree with us, and unconsciously reference only those perspectives which reaffirm our deeply entrenched beliefs.

Our minds are always looking for potential shortcuts and ways to save energy. As Robert Cialdini described in Influence, “Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn inconsistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore.” In a world where changing your mind is seen as a weakness, confirmation bias presents a significant threat. It keeps voters from recognising past judgment errors and in the area of personnel development, it causes us to either overlook negative qualities or fail to recognise someone’s attempt for improvement.

The only way to escape this shortcut is to embrace cognitive diversity. One of the most consistent findings in social psychology is putting ourselves in positions where we are exposed to people who are different from us. This includes socio-demographic and ethnic diversity which leads us to become more open-minded and tolerant to other viewpoints, particularly if we can find common ground or overlapping views as our own.


A cognitive bias that is deeply linked to confirmation is the so-called in-group favouritism, a sort of manifestation of our innate tribalistic tendencies.  In short, it is the tendency to favour your own group, formed by those with whom we racially, culturally and ethno-centrically identify with the most. Like many cognitive biases, the in-group bias serves an important purpose as it is designed to foster harmony and stability within the group. By favouring members of our own group, we are helping to ensure the overall health and continued existence and protection of it.

According to the realistic conflict theory, in-group bias arises from competition for resources between groups. Since different groups are all competing for the same available resource, it serves the best interest of the group, while spurning outsiders. In recent years, other explanations for in-group favouritism have much to do with the effect of oxytocin — the so-called “love molecule”. This neurotransmitter, while helping us to forge tighter bonds with people in our in-group, performs the exact opposite function for those on the outside. Contrarily, it makes us suspicious, fearful, and even disdainful of others. Ultimately, the in-group bias causes us to overestimate the abilities and value of our immediate group at the expense of people we don’t really know.

Unsurprisingly, real life implications of in-group bias can turn serious very quickly, especially when it evolves into out-group negativity. This is a negative bias that quickly translates to racial profiling in the judicial system and police culture, discrimination based on religion and sexuality, the predominant culture of fearing “the other”, or at its worst, escalation of violence, hate crime or even terrorism.

When looking into the world of negotiation and conflict resolution, the so-called exaggeration of conflict assumes that people involved in social or political conflict tend to overestimate the extremity of the other side’s beliefs. The implication of this mental tendency is important to consider. For instance, if the partisans in conflict perceive their differences as greater than they really are, they might be overly pessimistic about finding common ground. When people hold erroneous assumptions about the gap that may or may not exist between their beliefs and those of the other party, the resolution of conflict is much more difficult to achieve.  This suggests that information exchanged among parties is crucial. Unless both parties discuss the nature of their ideas, values and concerns, each side will continue to regard the other as extreme and unreasonable.

How Nelson Mandela used cognitive bias in negotiations


One person that kept these mental and social biases in mind during the negotiation of his country was the legendary statesman, Nelson Mandela.

In 1985, 23 years into his imprisonment, numerous signs - including international pressure, a devastating trade boycott, and growing violence between protestors and the police, indicated that the apartheid regime in South Africa was weakening. At that time, the African National Congress (ANC) held the stance that it would not negotiate with the South African government. Similarly, the government at the time also took a hard line against negotiation with the ANC, believing that to do so would signal weakness. Both sides insisted that they would not negotiate unless each made significant concessions, which in itself is a classic problem in prolonged conflicts.

When each side demands that the other relinquish significant bargaining power before talks even begin, negotiation is unlikely to happen and conflict calcifies. Given the entrenched stalemate, it was remarkable that Mandela even tried to launch negotiations between the government and ANC.

Like any good negotiator, his first point of order was to understand the interests of both side, show them that he understood their point of view, and find ways to meet their interests. By definition, a negotiation can succeed only if the other side agrees to the outcome. It is easy to be blinded to the other side’s interests when occupied with advancing your own. This blind spot may not be fatal when trying to persuade a neutral third party judge, but it can be in a negotiation where consent is required from the other side.

In secret prison negotiations, Mandela reassured each side that he and the ANC wanted and needed the white minority to be part of the country’s future. During these prison meetings, Mandela stressed that, “[T]he majority would need the minority. We do not want to drive you to the sea”. In his letter to President Botha in anticipation of their first meeting, Mandela highlighted that the interests of both parties must be met, recognising the need to address white South Africans about the impact of majority rule on them. In his letter, Mandela said:

“[I] wanted to impress on the reporters the critical role of whites in any new dispensation. . . . We did not want to destroy the country before we freed it, and to drive the whites away would devastate the nation. I said that there was a middle ground between white fears and black hopes . . . ‘Whites are fellow South Africans’ I said, ‘and we want them to feel safe and to know that we appreciate the contribution that they have made toward the development of this country’. Any man or woman who abandons apartheid will be embraced in our struggle for a democratic, nonracial South Africa . . .”

Another remarkable quality that made Mandela the rational, skillful and successful negotiator he was, was his ability to build relationships with a clear eye on the future without becoming mired in past grievances and the need for revenge. Many of us are in awe of Mandela’s ability to treat his oppressors with respect and negotiate directly with them. A significant number of mediators prefer keeping parties separate because they think parties in conflict are too angry with each other to work productively in the same room.

Of course, Mandela had good reason to be angry. He had been sentenced to life in prison, confined for 18 years in a cell where he lived in unbearably harsh conditions, separated from his wife, children, and friends for 27 years. Mandela’s ability to move past all of these grievances to focus on the future of his country as a whole was essential to his success.

This extraordinary ability to move beyond anger, resentment and sorrow isn’t common and certainly requires a level of introspection and self-reflection not all of us have. It is useful to understand his view of “the enemy” in this sense, as it helped him work with individuals who had engaged in horrific and immoral deeds. He viewed the enemy as the system that turned everyone against each other, and it was THAT system that he hated. Mandela concluded that, “[T]he liberation struggle was not a battle against any one group or colour, but a fight against a system of repression [...] I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another”.

He held true to his philosophy, even by reaching directly across the table and praising President De Klerk during his first public speech as a free man, by calling him “a man of integrity who is acutely aware of the dangers of a public figure not honouring his undertakings”. A simple recognition of value in your own adversary, even in extreme circumstances, can aid reassurance, thus gaining popularity even amongst the white minority of South Africa, whose support Mandela would need in the future.

Not all of us can dream of having the strength of character displayed by Mandela in his years of negotiations to end the Apartheid regime in South Africa. But many of us can learn from his lessons, especially when it comes to reaching out to the other side and keeping your cognitive biases in check.

To learn more about the tricks of our brains, and how to keep them from influencing our decision making skills, we encourage you to read more here:

Buster Benson: Cognitive bias cheat sheet