I am an Expat. Not that I ever thought about it in these terms when 8 years ago I traded life in Milan for life in London and purchased that one-way ticket. It never occurred to me back then that leaving your country is a much bigger deal than one would think.
It has been an amazing experience and should I go back I would not change a thing, but the effects of moving abroad might impact you and your closest ones for ever. I had no real reason to leave, I had an interesting permanent job in a beautiful city, many great friends I had grown up with, a flat in a lively area and was enjoying life. But well, I wanted more, experience new places and life in another country for a start. The allure and spice of life abroad and the words of an ex boss who had relocated to London with his family years before, did it. During a lunch in a busy restaurant near Trafalgar square, 8 years ago, he asked me "If not now, when?". 6 months later I was boarding my plane.
It is safe to say that, like many, I became an expat (or just a “world citizen” as a friend would put it) by coincidence.
One of the things that surprise you at the beginning of your life abroad is how differently at times people do and perceive things: a different language structure helps to emphasize this too. I put this down to culture and country of origin the first few years, but 8 years and 3 countries later I can say that in my experience often culture and origin have very little to do with behaviours. Of course we all carry traits that come straight from what we learnt as children and from where we grew up. But how much does that really influence the adult life of many educated, well travelled people? As I did not move abroad to bring my motherland with me, I have been determined to find out more.
Most importantly, as an Italian married to a German (also an ex Londoner), living in Switzerland and raising a trilingual/tri-cultural family, it has been imperative for my own survival and sanity to get to the bottom of things when it comes to personalities, backgrounds and unconscious biases.
I have had different occasions in the past few years that made me think about what makes people say and behave in a certain way. My typical Italian impulsiveness has long gone and has been replaced by a more open, curious attitude (ok, on most days!). I often take a quick step back and think "what made him/her say that?" Background, personality and where people are in life in that moment are some of the components I believe play a big role in people`s responses to life, rather than where they are from (too simple, too stereotyped), and most times, the real reason is one and only: unconscious and cognitive biases, I am thinking of you!
So what are they, how do we deal with them and above all which ones do you recognize yourself in?
I am no expert but I have done quite a bit of reading recently on the topic; here is what I have found.
Wikipedia defines cognitive biases as “a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own "subjective social reality" from their perception of the input. An individual's construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.”
So in short, cognitive biases represent the way our brain distorts reality. But why do we do it? Our brains are daily bombarded by hundreds of thousands of sensorial inputs and in order to let warnings emerge (especially danger warnings) from the background noise, it has learnt over millennia to adopt some shortcuts.
Normally these are correct shortcuts which allow us to interpret reality quickly and efficiently, but some of these shortcuts lead us to dead-end roads, wrong conclusions on the world around us: these are called “cognitive biases”.
Here is a list of cognitive biases that we stumble upon more often.
I have picked the ones I believe are more common. There is nothing we can really do to change them or change our perception either, but as always, acknowledging and being aware of how and why we perceive things in a certain way could make our life a lot easier.
1. Affect heuristic
Our perception of reality is particularly influenced by what we most desire or what we are going through in that precise moment of our lives.
This is also very true for the many challenges that expat life presents, we perceive realities in a new country also based on how we are feeling and we are giving more importance to in that moment.
Once you choose to buy a new car, won`t you start seeing that model everywhere?
2. Bandwagon bias
Our tendency to develop an idea based not so much on its actual reality but in relation to the number of people who share our same idea.
Or to put it differently, sometimes we like to follow without realizing we are doing it.
Especially as expats we will surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. Not necessarily people from the same country we come from, in fact, often the opposite I have come to realize. By sharing the same opinions we will often only reinforce our beliefs in it. This is where being open to confrontation and to constructive feedback from outside of our “circles” comes in handy.
3. Confirmation bias
It is in our nature to give more relevance to those pieces of information only that can confirm our initial thesis.
It is apparently very easy to be in denial when it comes to this one bias…
4. Clustering illusion
One of the most powerful weapons our brain has is the capacity to spot "patterns" via which we get to quick conclusions (stereotypes, anyone?)
As expats for example, how many times have we been tempted to link behaviours or attitudes of people to their nationality?
5. Hyperbolic discounting
The hyperbolic discounting is an attitude, the habit to choose immediate gratification over long term satisfaction.
This attitude is often present in 3 main areas of our lives:
- Food choices
In an experiment of a few years ago scientists asked a group of people to choose a snack, fruit or chocolate, as their snack of the day and their snack in a week.
As a future snack, 74% of the people chose the fruit. As the snack of the day 70% chose chocolate. Would they have chosen differently the following week if given the choice again? This shows we tend to overestimate our future abilities but the truth is that it is only by changing today`s attitudes that we can hope to be improved versions of ourselves in the future.
Similar experiments have been carried out by scientists on babies and children, the book “Brain Rules for Baby” (J. Medina) has quite a few interesting examples on this topic.
6. Negativity bias
We basically tend to give more importance to the negative aspects of our lives than to the positive ones.
A quick step back to re-evaluate a negative situation (a fight with your partner, a missed promotion, etc) and to regain perspective could only lead to a better life balance. Yep. Not easy to do on the bad days.
7. Placebo effect
This is one of the most famous cognitive bias and my favourite: it consists of trying to influence an event by convincing yourself that that particular event will at some point happen. I call it positive thinking and it does not sound too negative, does it?
Simply put, the desire to do the opposite that others would like us to do.
It comes from the will to defend one`s freedom of choice. A suggestion could be to avoid to impose a single choice but to offer a range of options that, obviously, go in the desired direction.
Disclaimer: It applies to many situations in life of course. As the mother of a toddler I classify these biases as `tantrums`.
Yes, adults have them too, they are just called in many different ways…
9. Information bias
Gathering information. Gathering yet more information. Then feeling absolutely stuck and undecided. This insecurity is caused by the information bias, the belief that the more information we have available, the better our choices will be.
Truth is, often the overload of information does not lead us to efficient solutions that work for us. You are the only one in the driver`s seat of your life.
10. Galatea effect
This bias goes hand in hand with self-fulfilling prophecies. It occurs when a success (or a failure) of a person is influenced by his or her self-esteem.
In other words, our successes are often determined by how much we believe in ourselves. Others and/or what we consider foreign cultures to our own have very little to do on this matter.
So which bias did you like best? Does any of these particularly influence your life? And your life as an expat or your opinions about the so called `culture clashes`? Which ones have caused you trouble?
I have personally identified a few that over the years might have influenced my days and my decisions. I am observing them, recognizing them and learning to “manage” them when possible.
Are you ready to start your weekly “bias count”?!