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Cognitive Biases in Myanmar Context: Lots and Lots of Doctors, but Doctors without Passion

In the second week of the semester, Parami students from the Social Psychology course have shown great interest in learning about the Cognitive Bias concept at hand and discussed the most prevalent cognitive biases in their communities. Social Psychology is one of the modular courses offered at Parami this Fall modular period. It is taught by Dr. Romina de Jong, the Director of Academic Affairs at Parami University. The course focuses on the scientific study of how people think, influence, and relate to one another. The primary purpose of this course is to expand and deepen students' knowledge and understanding of social psychology to apply the concepts in their everyday lives. 

The Social Psychology course welcomes students from various parts of Myanmar with different backgrounds and professional experiences. We spoke to students as the course was in its second week, accumulating four online sessions of the course. We interviewed them on their learning experience, their thoughts on Cognitive biases, and the main concept they learned from the course.  

What is a Cognitive Bias? 

Students got to explore 12 different Cognitive Biases. Cognitive biases are systematic intuitive and subconscious tendencies in human thinking that do not follow logic reasoning and plausibility principles but do inform our judgments, decision-making, and consequent behavior. 

Why do people have biases? Are biases always bad? 

The students explained that cognitive bias could be shaped by various things, including people's minds, life experiences, beliefs, personal circumstances, upbringing, the community, and the society they engage with. 

"I do not necessarily think of bias as good or bad. To me, at the root of it all, we are all trying to survive as human beings. It goes back to that survival instinct-whether it is survival by trying to protect the human race as a species or those who share our DNA, such as our family or our community. Or we are just biased in an effort to stay more relevant in society." ⸺Nu Thazin

"Biased decisions and judgments made on a personal level would have subtle and negative consequences. However, when it comes to making decisions and judgments that can impact a country or a certain population, the negative consequences of the biased judgment would be noticeable, costly, and [in some cases] disastrous. It can result in mistrust and conflict among the members and even loss of lives and properties of any given country [and population]." ⸺Nyan Lin Aung 

"Biases are not always bad. Some biases are necessary, like the Placebo Effect (when people believe something has a certain effect on them, it will cause that effect). It is quite useful in medicine. During COVID-19, when there is no medicine, some doctors would use the Placebo effect. It is not effective all the time as it does not guarantee that you won't die; it just pleases you." ⸺Mya Minn Madi 

Cognitive biases and Myanmar culture 

The students talked about the general cognitive biases in their society based on their individual experiences and knowledge. 

"Because cognitive biases are formed based on some of our cultural upbringing, there are biases relevant to our culture. The most prevalent bias we have here is Anchoring bias. To a certain extent, we have Confirmation bias, which is also due to our Myanmar culture and beliefs, specifically superstitious beliefs. For instance, the elders would tell us not to wash or cut our hair on a particular day because this is what their elders told them, and they have lived a long life, so they know the secret to a long healthy life, therefore we must listen to them; this is Anchoring bias. Then, Confirmation bias comes in when the elder tries to confirm this information by seeking confirmation from a neighbor who, they know, also shares the same belief. That is how our elders try and convince us to behave within the boundaries of their belief system. Again, it is not necessarily good or bad. It is just how we are as people."⸺Nu Thazin

"A specific bias can be more prevalent within a particular culture due to a specific set of beliefs, norms, and values held by its majority, and these deep-rooted values would make its people more vulnerable to one or more biases. One of the most common biases in Myanmar, I think, would be Choice Supportive Bias (when people [have a tendency] to highlight more about the positive aspects of a particular choice while ignoring or discounting the negative sides.) In Myanmar, when people idolize a particular figure or vote for a political party, they tend to exaggerate how this figure or party of their choice is good and righteous. Even to the point, they cannot tolerate any critical and reasonable judgments or views of this figure or party, in denial of any alternative views that do not favor their choice." ⸺Nyan Lin Aung 

"Outcome Bias and Bandwagon Effect are the most common in Myanmar. One of my classmates told me that he was affected by people around him with that bias [Outcome Bias] when he passed the matriculation exam with low marks. Outcome bias means people judge you by the outcome you make. It is terrible because we can't say he wouldn't become a successful businessman or maybe even a peaceful man who is satisfied with his life. The bandwagon effect is when people would do the same thing as other people seem to be doing it. According to Myanmar society, an example is that many students would choose [to study] medicine not because they are interested in medicine. But they think students with high marks [in matriculation exam] need to go there [medical school]. Also, parents want their children to go there [medical school]. This Bandwagon effect also affects the future of our country—lots and lots of doctors, [but] doctors without passion. That is quite sad." ⸺Mya Minn Madi 

Many young people are also trying to break away from norms and raise questions to ask their elders when biases arise to expand their knowledge of the common cognitive biases in Myanmar culture. They seek to deepen their knowledge in social psychology to understand themselves and the people around them better. With the concept learned from the social psychology course, the students believe that they can promote social relations by educating other people who do not know about social psychology and how it affects people's lives in order to create a better and friendly environment in society. 

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