Know Thyself

Do we do enough to identify our own biases in everyday life?

Inscribed on the frontispiece of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi are three maxims. The first, and arguably most famous, “know thyself”. A simple phrase that holds the entirety of one’s existence in a few letters, and something I spend far too much time thinking about.

The remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Credits: WikiMedia)

In April I wrote a piece on how our personal politics affects how we approach and interpret science communication. I ended the piece by saying “this requires us to introspect the political machinery that has shaped what we believe can be decoupled”. But introspection requires attention not only on the external environment that shaped us, but the quagmire of internalised beliefs and assumptions that influence our daily thoughts as well.

As scientists, we spend much of our time unpacking and deconstructing research. We’re trained to scrutinise methodologies and pick apart statistical interpretations, but very rarely do we apply the same rigour to ourselves. We hide behind the stereotype of being rational beings who function on facts and logic, without looking deeper at the invisible hands that guide how we interpret the complex, multivariable datasets we’re confronted with in everyday life. These invisible hands are cognitive biases, and although they’re the product of evolutionary mechanisms to think faster and filter inputs quicker, they are a misfiring that causes us to lose objectivity and make irrational judgments. Our own unique combinations are moulded throughout our lifetime and often difficult to recognise.

A useful resource I use to work on identifying my own biases is The School of Thought, a non-profit dedicated to critical and creative thinking, and philosophy. While there are hundreds of different types of cognitive biases, The School of Thought has a fantastic website that focuses on the 24 most common ones and where we are most likely to encounter them in out in the real world. I keep their poster permanently plastered above my desk, and whenever I’m confronted with a new argument in a topic I’m working on I try identify which biases might be influencing my opinion. If I find that I’m overtly agreeing with the argument does it align with an another argument I’m already in favour of (confirmation bias), is the argument being made by someone I respect or know (halo effect), or is the argument being made by someone similar to me (in-group bias)? Similarly if I find that I feel immediately dismissive of the argument at hand is it because I feel as though I’m being coerced into accepting the argument and want to disagree (reactance) or because my mind was already set on believing another outcome (belief bias)?

The poster of cognitive biases available for free download from

I believe these types of exercises are important for making better choices and forming more robust opinions, particularly when we’re looking at science with a strong sociological influence such as what we’re seeing now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we debate the science that supposedly underpins policies, churn out social-media think pieces, and go to war in the comment sections it’s important that there are no easy answers and certainly no absolute answers. We would have far more effective engagements by understanding what types of blinkers are altering our worldview.


To be or not to be an academic? 

Ziglar said ‘Making a big life change is pretty scary. But, know what’s even scarier? Regret’. I had chased goals my whole life. A perfectionist. I was the youngest of everything – deployed diplomat, project manage a multi-million US$ initiative on behalf of the South African government abroad, a participant in a USA – South Africa exchange programme for earmarked future leaders and government senior manager at the time.

unnamed (1)Being an over-achiever became who I was. Being a workaholic was simply part of my personality. The fact that I survived an attack in my workplace and an attempted coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with a failed rocket in our complex pool (thank goodness for outdated Russian military rejects sold equally to African governments and rebels), reinforced this idea that I was a brave, young, warrior. A political activist since fourteen, I thought I knew who I was, what I wanted and exactly how to get there. 


Fast forward to 2017. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD. She needed therapy and hands-on support to ensure that she didn’t think of herself as a failure, but as a shining star whose mind worked differently. It was our job to understand her, instead of her attempting to conform to us. I can’t explain the shock and guilt I felt. I should have known, but of course, I didn’t since I was working 14 to 18 hour days, travelling extensively whilst nannies and my mother did parental duties. I had failed our child and being me, failure was not an option. I quit my job immediately with my colleagues thinking I had a mental breakdown (later I would come to see it as a mental watershed moment). I home-schooled and supported all three girls in their individual needs and interests; even had a fourth child. By the end of 2018, the kids were ready to return/start school and our family was in a good place. Failure averted.

I always planned to enter academia. My husband suggested I do my Masters in Security Studies in 2019 to take time to re-evaluate and still be a hands-on mom. He forgot who I was. I had to be the top student in the Masters in Security Studies and when I was done in March with my mini-dissertation proposal, I couldn’t refuse the DST-NRF bursary to work on a full-time dissertation to be followed by a PhD in food safety governance as part of a broader Centre of Excellence in Food Security project. I thought it would be a breeze. It isn’t. Nothing prepared me for the intense work, emotional highs and lows and even challenges with my supervisors.

IMG_9762Being in my late thirties, I’m surrounded by youth who have achieved far more in academia, and elder academics who don’t appreciate my work experience as their rigid outlook does not fit with my views to transform academia by breaking down toxic patriarchal cultures, stop being a journal producing machine, aligning research outputs to what is relevant and required by society and avoid academic language as an exclusionary barrier. I advocate instead to co-produce knowledge with government and civil society that is understandable and practically geared, without removing rigorous evidence-based research –

Over the last two years I learned that instead of seeing my choices as a failure, I could use them as learning opportunities. My move to the Centre of Excellence could either be my best or worst decision over the coming year, but it did remind me of what my passions were – Africa, immigration, security and decolonization. I realized that it’s okay to change course as only you impose your limits. I might not currently be writing on a topic of my choice but it pushes me to my limits and reignited my passion for writing, reading diversely, sharing knowledge, continuous learning and listening to different perspectives to best iteratively engage.

unnamedIt’s not easy to start from scratch, but I’m going to be scared enough to not want to regret that I didn’t try. My plans are to complete my dissertation by July and immediately continue with my PhD. I hope to research, to write and importantly to learn more from others, perhaps even lecture the next generation of political scientists if given the opportunity. I learned the hard way that my family is my first passion and priority. I might no longer need to over-achieve, the balance might be more important now, but doing my best within the circumstances remains. As Gandalf said ‘We cannot choose what time is given to us, all we can decide is what to do with it’. And I’ve made my decision, for 2020 at least.