Unscramble Your Biases

As I noticed quotes from the Code Conference dominate my Twitter feed yesterday, I saw a few from the Jeff Bezos interview that made me say out loud “Jeff Bezos is amazing.” I love his use of the phrase “cultural norms” (it’s one of my favorite phrases) and I particularly thought his comments on Donald Trump and the Peter Thiel / Gawker situation were right on the money.

The interview prompted me to think about how biases affect my thinking. I’ve been struggling with the Peter Thiel / Gawker stuff and have asked a few friends closer to the situation and the people involved to give me their perspectives as I’ve tried to determine whether my biases are overwhelming my perspective on it. As a result, I haven’t discussed it publicly, and instead have thought harder about it at a meta-level, which is actually more interesting to me.

I don’t know Jeff Bezos and have never met him, so my strong positive reaction to the interview reinforced this notion around unscrambling my biases as part of better critical thinking. If we use Amazon as an example, my relationship with the company, and my corresponding experiences over the years, have created a set of biases that I map to my impression of Bezos. And, as you read though the list below of my experiences / viewpoints, you’ll quickly see how the biases can create a chaotic mind-mess.

Following are the quick thoughts that come to mind when I think about Amazon.

  • Love it as a customer
  • Frustrated with how they have handled relationships with companies I’m an investor in
  • Delighted with how they have handled relationships with companies I’m an investor in
  • Moments of misery with interactions around difficult things
  • Brilliance and clarity of thought from Bezos
  • Wasted money on Amazon products that sucked
  • Amazing delight with Amazon products that I use every day, including my Kindle
  • Sucky experience as an author
  • Distribution that otherwise wouldn’t exist for me as an author
  • Many friends at Amazon
  • Sympathy for the stupid way Colorado has dealt with them around affiliates and sales tax

I could probably come up with another 50 bullet points like this. Given that Bezos is the CEO and public face of Amazon, I map my view of the company to him. I know that is only one dimension of him – and his experience as a human – but it’s the one that I engage with.

Then I remember we are all human. Shit is hard. We make lots of mistakes. And, when I sit and listen to Bezos talk to Walt Mossberg, I have an entirely new level of amazement, appreciation, and intellectual affection for him, and – by association – Amazon.

I know that many different kinds of biases get in my way every day. I’ve learned the names for some of them, how they work, and how to overcome them through various work of mine over the year. But at the root of it, I realize that a continuous effort to unscramble them when confronted with something that has created dissonance in my brain is probably the most effective way to confront and resolve the biases.

For those of you in the world who tolerate me saying “what do you think of thing X” and then give me a thoughtful response, thank you, especially when you know I’m wrestling with trying to understand what I think about X. Now you know that part of what I’m asking you to help me with it to unscramble my biases around the particular person or situation that is represented by thing X.

  • Biases of all kinds are pervasive and insidious. Many people are riddled with them and don’t even realize it. My hat is off to anyone who makes a candid effort to unearth them and re-evaluate the data. Kudos. You really may not be from this planet….

    BTW, I made small talk with a pure stranger yesterday who didn’t miss the opportunity to show me their Fitbit! 🙂

  • Biases are hard to shake. Very hard to shake. I wonder about the management structure and culture at Amazon. We hear a lot about Bezos, but we don’t hear a lot about anyone else. (I am thinking critically in terms of Professor Ron Burt’s research on Brokerage and Closure regarding networks.) The first step is recognizing bias. The most famous culture that initially did this was the College of Cardinals in the Catholic Church. One couldn’t criticize the Pope, so they appointed a “devil’s advocate”. Important to find empathy, or if an organization has to appoint a devil’s advocate and keep that position safe within the culture.

  • “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman

    He discusses two very different ways of thinking – System 1 and System 2. This is a distinction that has been empirically researched now in some depth.

    Biases are an example of the System 1 mechanisms we use to simplify the world and enable ourselves to respond quickly
    Overcoming biases requires System 2 thinking and that is hard work so not surprisingly we find it demanding.

    It’s all right there in the book. Strongly recommended.

  • Xiaohua Yi

    Thanks for sharing this fun interview. Jeff Bezos did not hide his opinion and his respect of the “cultural norm” that is apparently built on a deep conviction of freedom of speech in a democratic society was in full display. But should we all be chill about Peter Thiel’s personal struggle to right a wrong that was forced upon him a decade ago, if we truly value and embrace this “norm,” despite he is rich and famous?

  • As per usual, this was a masterclass post. Thank you for sharing, Brad!

  • Steve Ellis

    As CEO and founder, Bezos is the human face of the company and without other input your collective experiences with the company get attributed to a person, almost always the CEO.

    Now here is not something reflective of Bezos but should give you a positive bias point to the Amazon reviewer community:


    To me, those reviews and others you can find with a simple search are laugh-out-loud going to tears funny. Should be appropriate reading after work.
    Link is one of many, and if you are in the mood for very clever reviewer story-telling, look up reviews of Haribo Sugar-Free Gummi Bears.

  • I like the way Jeff Bezos reiterates the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson- on the necessity of a free press, even if people write critical things about you.

    He’s a good sport. He understands billionaires’ role in society.

  • Do you ever dig into your bias and find that your bias doesn’t “get in your way”, but instead provides tremendous benefits or helps you in some way? I ask since you talk about bias as a bad thing, but I believe that sometimes our bias is beneficial.

    • Bias is not a bad thing or a good thing. Not understanding or recognizing bias, and how it impacts our thought process is the problem.