Familiarity may breed contempt…. but it mainly exaggerates our biases

Last Sunday my son’s football team played in a local tournament. They were undefeated until the semi-finals in which they lost. In last Sunday’s tournament, both semi-final matches went to penalty shoot-out and in both those matches, the team with bigger (in size) goal keeper prevailed — they played with small goal posts on turf ground unlike the previous tournaments. My wife arrived to the venue later in the day and the first match she saw was the first semi-final between the other two teams. After seeing that match, she felt that both of those teams were quite strong and she could not see how my son’s team could prevail over either of them. On the other hand, while I did feel that both those teams played well, I could not see how either of them could have challenged my son’s team. I did have the advantage that I saw these other teams play multiple matches earlier in the day during in the league stage. I was more familiar than my wife with the other teams’ play and hence more aware of their shortcomings. My wife was familiar with my son’s team’s shortcomings but has only seen the strengths of the other teams. So, in her mind, she pitted other team’s strengths against my son’s team’s weaknesses.

Another unrelated incident: I have recently come to know that the daughter of one of my childhood friends is going to get married this summer. When my mother broke this news to me, for a moment I could not believe that the girl who used to visit us as a young girl is already getting married. This train of thought was broken as my mother told me that she is already twenty one and I was struggling to see it only because most of my interactions with this young lady were when she was a young girl. I was familiar with her as a young girl.

Many Years ago when I visited London for the first time, I was blown away by the convenience of the public transport system there — specifically the metro train system called the “Undergound”. I was so impressed with how extensive the “underground” system was — I could access an Undeground station anywhere in London within ten minutes of walk. It seemed to operate all the way down to 6 levels below ground. Every area of London was connected to the Underground grid (or at least seemed like it). Only later I realized that many Londoners actually find Undergound below par. They see trains breaking down, various train lines going under maintenance way too often and many co-passengers in the trains “smelly” (this was a verbatim explicit comment!). Londoners were way too familiar with their transport system and hence are all too familiar with its shortcomings and I happened to experience only advantages.

You probably have noticed the trend here with how familiarity could lead to erroneous thinking. While it is popularly known that “familiarity breeds contempt” — I believe that familiarity goes a step further — mainly it exaggerates biases. We tend to overweigh either the familiar positives or the familiar negatives of the situation. This leads to exaggeration of predisposed bias(es) and leads to polarized thinking.

Suddenly I started noticing this everywhere:

  • It is not uncommon to hear that the boss of a friend is much better than your boss (and occasionally much worse too)?
  • That other department is much better managed and throws up many more growth opportunities than yours
  • Those other organizations seem to have (much) better culture than your employer’s
  • Grass generally seems greener on the other side
  • Marriages that end up in divorce but that have started with love — generally are cases of familiarity exposing the shortcomings of either party
  • It is common to see new restaurants start ever so often and old ones close down equally frequently. I’m sure that owners of each of these restaurants believe that they will succeed in their venture because of their ability to cook/market or some other inherent capability. This expectation of success largely stems from their familiarity with their strengths and blindness to the factors that must have led to the failure of the restaurateur
  • In many organizations (particularly larger ones), most projects fail to meet time and/or budget targets, year after year but they continue with their familiar yet erroneous methods and assumptions. They do not make fundamental changes that are required to increase the probability of success

The more I think about this, the more I see this psychological affliction of familiarity intersecting with other (popular biases) such as confirmation bias and anchoring bias. Familiarity tends to anchor our thinking making us either overconfident or under-confident by looking for confirming evidence accordingly.

The biggest impact from this psychological conditioning is not so much that we lose objectivity in the face of familiarity but that we remain ignorant that we lose objectivity. This makes it particularly hard to overcome this this. So, it is important to infuse objectivity artificially at least for the materially significant decisions in life — do not take decisions impulsively, sleep over big decisions, deliberate big decisions with suitable well-wishers, “invert” big decisions (critically analyze what could go wrong with the decision) etc.



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