We are all protagonists in the movie of our lives, but we must not fall into the error of thinking that the world is a mere backdrop, a scenario that must change according to our desires and needs. This thought, although tempting and very common, is the source of our worst frustrations, disappointments and anger because it leads us to feed unreal expectations. We must be aware that we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. And we must also be aware that we all suffer, who more and who less, a self-centered bias.
What is the self-centered bias?
In Psychology, the tendency to interpret everything that happens to us in a personal way, according to the intensity with which it affects us, is called “self-centered bias”, also known as “egocentric bias”.
The egocentric bias helps us to maintain a coherent narrative of the events of our life. The more we personalize the experiences, the more relevant they are to us and, therefore, the more memorable. These memories end up becoming the basis of our identity. Therefore, in a certain way the self-centered bias would be the glue that allows us keep together the different pieces of our life.
However, we must keep in mind that this bias is no more than an adaptive illusion. It often leads us to misinterpret what happens, makes us take things too much to heart and waste valuable emotional energy that escapes in form of frustration and anger.
How does self-centered bias work?
A study conducted at the Tohoku Women’s Junior College revealed how self-centered bias works. The psychologists asked the participants to rate a series of their own and others’ behaviors as fair or unfair.
Interestingly, people tended to rate the behavior of the others as more unfair and their own behaviors as more just. This reveals that we tend to attribute positive successes and behaviors to us and project failures and negative behaviors on the others.
It also reveals that, when making judgments, we’re very partial. We don’t have problems to understand our motives and turn them into excuses for our decisions and behaviors, but we have a hard time putting ourselves in the place of the others.
Another very interesting study conducted at the University of Shenzhen delved into the mechanisms of self-centered bias at the brain level. These neuroscientists proved that the activation of the thalamus can predict how intense our egocentric bias will be.
The thalamus is deep in the brain and is a kind of “relay station” and center of synaptic integration, where a first processing of sensory signals occurs before they continue their journey to the cerebral cortex.
In practice, this structure is responsible for screening insignificant signals and directing important sensory impulses to the areas of the somatosensory cortex and other areas of the brain, determining in turn the intensity and importance of these stimuli. Therefore, the thalamus plays a key role in directing our attention to the stimuli that we consider relevant.
That means that, when we’re victims of the self-centered bias, we give preference to information and stimuli that really aren’t so important, only because we consider that they are related to us and affect us in some way. However, that egocentric vision can play a trick on us, causing us to overlook information that could be relevant, as the thalamus would qualify as inconsequential or secondary.
Thinking that everyone is looking at us
In fact, one of the main consequences of the egocentric bias is thinking that everyone is looking at us. If we live like the protagonists of the movie, we will almost automatically assume that everyone observes us. Then we make the mistake of thinking that, since we’re the center of our universe, we are also the center of the universe of the others.
As a result, when we relate to the others, we think less about them and more about ourselves. In certain circumstances that effect can become so intense that it almost leads to “schizophrenic behaviors”, in the sense that we stop reacting to what happens to respond to the mental images we built. It’s a totally maladaptive behavior that doesn’t take reality into account.
A study developed at Cornell University, for example, showed how that focus effect works. The psychologists asked the participants to wear a shirt with an embarrassing image on the university campus. Then they had to estimate how many people noticed it. Everyone estimated that they had attracted a lot of attention, but in most cases they went unnoticed.
This experiment shows us that each person is so imbued in this effect that he notices very Little the others.
How does the self-centered bias affect us?
“A hyper-dimensioned unconscious is always egocentric. Consciousness can do nothing except preserve its own existence. It is unable to learn from the past, unable to understand present events and unable to project himself correctly into the future”, wrote Carl Gustav Jung.
Focusing excessively on ourselves, forgetting that we are part of the world, and assuming our opinions as absolute and unchangeable truths, is a sign of immaturity and insecurity that causes more harm than good.
1. It prevents us from taking advantage of differences to grow. This cognitive bias makes us trust too much on our point of view and way of seeing the world, thinking that are the only possible. This leads us to ignore the others and underestimate their opinions, which in many cases can be enriching.
2. Add additional pressure. Suffering the egocentric bias also adds additional pressure because we worry too much about the image we project. That pressure leads us to make more mistakes and makes us irritable unnecessarily.
3. It takes us away from the world. To relate better and take advantage of what the world offers us, we first need to drop our ego. Being too focused on ourselves prevents us from seeing the situations clearly and addressing them adaptively.
How to overcome the self-centered bias?
The first step to overcome the self-centered bias is to assume that everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, we suffer. Nobody escapes its influence. Therefore, we must begin asking ourselves to what extent we are reacting to the situation and to what extent we are letting ourselves be carried away by our desires, expectations and/or emotions.
Assuming a psychological distance from what happens to us is also fundamental to reduce the effect of the self-centered bias. There’s a very interesting technique that consists in imagining that the mind contains more than one “ego”. It implies separating, for example, the “suffering ego” from the “distant ego”.
It is a kind of dissociation that helps us improve our mood and react better to events, moving the focus of attention from the interior to the exterior. Through this exercise, we provide psychological oxygen to our “suffering ego”, so that it can see the negative experience with other eyes, in a more realistic and detached way.
Another step to overcome the self-centered bias is to worry a little less about the image we project. It’s about lowering the guard a bit so we can relate to the others in a more authentic way. This will automatically generate an effect of emotional reciprocity; that is, those around us will also relax and open up, so the focus that was previously directed towards our “ego” becomes a kind of reflector, expansive and shared that allows us connect from our essence.
Feng, C. et. Al. (2018) The neural signatures of egocentric bias in normative decision-making. Brain Imaging Behav.
Gilovich, T. & Husted, V. (2000) The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 78(2): 211-222.
Tanaka, K. (1993) Egocentric bias in perceived fairness: Is it observed in Japan? Social Justice Research; 6 (3): 273–285.