The Yanny vs Laurel debate is a perfect example of how bias works

Some of these people hear “Yanny,” some of them hear “Laurel.” They’re both right.
Some of these people hear “Yanny,” some of them hear “Laurel.” They’re both right.
Image: REUTERS/Nicky Loh
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Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?

Believe it or not, the same science that fuels this debate—it’s definitely “Yanny,” by the way—can also help explain why it’s difficult to overcome bias in the office.

There are deep reasons for why there can be so much disagreement over how an audio clip sounds. In each moment (including this one!), the brain is combining sensory input from the outside world with what’s already happening inside (experiences and beliefs) to create our perception. These subjective perceptions of reality are different for every person. But because our perceptual processes are not accessible to us, our perceptions feel like objective reality.

This leads to what social and cognitive scientists call“experience bias”: people assume that what they see is all there is to see, and that it’s all accurate. If I experienced it, it must be true.

Until a meme—or a human interaction—evidences otherwise.

The experience of “experience bias”

Many of the Tweets and Facebook posts that are currently arguing over whether it’s ” Yanny” or “Laurel” express complete disbelief that someone else can look at the same picture, or hear the same audio, and come away with a different understanding of what they just experienced.

Research on mentalizing, or how we infer the mental states of other people (and ourselves, depending on who you ask), helps explain the disbelief. We understand other people’s mental states on the basis of our own mental states. Without realizing we’re doing so, we simulate what we would do and project that simulation onto others.

Tellingly, the same brain region most involved when we are thinking about the mental lives of others is also active when we consider our own mental state.

As a result, our neural architecture biases us by relating to what others think or feel through a lens of of how we believe we’d react in a given situation.

The problem with the brain’s self-centric mode of understanding others is that “it only works well if we are very similar to the person whose behavior we are trying to predict,” University College London neuroscientists Chris and Uta Frith write in their highly cited Neuron review paper. To the extent people are like us, we get them. If they aren’t, we don’t.

This empathy gap, reinforced by experience bias, erupts in business all of the time.

The business of experience bias

We interview a candidate and can’t believe the rest of the panel doesn’t see them as the ideal candidate. We explore a business opportunity and are flabbergasted that our partners don’t envision the same opportunity for growth. We can’t fathom how a project that we’d consider the most important thing that we’ll do in the next 12 months isn’t as high on the list of priorities for our co-worker.

For many of us, that is infuriating.

But how often do we stop to ask why others see it differently? And when we do ask, how often is that done with the goal of genuinely understanding their point of view, as opposed to simply getting enough evidence to break their argument down? Psychologists call this process of putting yourself in another’s cognitive shoes perspective taking, and in experiments, it’s been shown to be crucial skill for leaders in group decision-making.

Yet it’s hard to imagine the experience of someone who you hold as different than yourself:  In neuroimaging experiments, brain regions associated with self-referential thoughts were active when people thought about mental states of people who they perceived to be like them but not for people who seen to be different from them.

Whether you hear Yanny or Laurel, you’re not necessarily completely right or completely wrong. There are other perspectives to be considered. This works the same way in your workplace. Your reaction to different views—can help create a signal for others about whether you’re open to including diverse perspectives.

Speaking of that, we can see why you might say it’s Laurel.

Khalil Smith, Heidi Grant, and David Rock are executives at the NeuroLeadership Institute.