If you have a brain, you’re biased

Despite what we might think, all of us have biases. Some are hard-wired into our brains; others are the result of our life experience. Know the difference, and do something about them, says Peter Hughes.

If you have a brain, you’re biased
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I recently bought a new vehicle. While driving it home I was amazed to see how many vehicles of the same type were on the road.

This was the ‘selective observation bias’ working on me: suddenly noticing something I’d never noticed before. This often occurs due to a recent decision we’ve made, and is an example of a cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases
These biases are hard-wired into our brains by evolution, unlike ‘hidden’ biases, which develop over time and are rooted in our life experience.

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Here are some common cognitive biases that will be immediately familiar:

  • Confirmation bias: The tendency to seek views that accord with our own.
  • Gambler’s fallacy: Where illogical prominence is given to previous events. For example coin-tossing, where after five consecutive heads, we predict that the next toss of the coin ‘must’ produce tails.
  • Negativity bias: Where we overlook good news, while bad news gets our full attention.
  • ‘Rosy retrospection’ bias: Remembering the past as being better than it actually was.

Cognitive biases are heavily exploited by advertisers and marketers. An everyday example is the ‘anchoring effect’, where we tend to rely too heavily on one piece of information (usually the most recent data acquired) when making a decision. For instance, the price reduction of an advertised item may trigger our desire to buy, and we end up losing sight of the total price of the item, which may be exorbitant, or whether we really need the item in the first place.

Hidden biases
Unconscious or hidden biases are far more pernicious than cognitive biases. ‘Stereotyping’ is an example, and it’s perhaps the most destructive bias of all, leading to prejudgement of an individual’s values and competence. It can result in missed opportunities and great disappointment.

I had one experience with this bias when I almost turned down a business partnership with a woman, whom I had, without any evidence, prejudged.

I was eventually persuaded by people less prejudiced than I to enter into an agreement with her. The joint business was an unmitigated success.

While we can learn to recognise and guard against cognitive biases, hidden biases are harder nuts to crack.

We might chuckle over a cognitive bias such as the one that makes the past seem better than the present, but hidden biases are no laughing matter.

These are emotionally rooted products of our upbringing and life experience, and involve deeply held attitudes about sensitive issues such as race, gender, age or generation, disability, marital status, nationality, political belief, religion, sexual orientation and social standing.

Hidden biases affect how we perceive reality, how we view people and how we react towards them.

While cognitive biases can lead to flawed judgement and poor decisions, unconscious biases in ourselves or our organisations can lead to much more serious problems. But take heart. It’s possible to fight your hidden biases and make the unconscious conscious.

Begin by doing some research and getting to understand the difference between cognitive and hidden biases. With the involvement of one or two of your colleagues, ruthlessly identify biases you have witnessed in yourself and other managers.

Do some thinking about how you will spot the warning signs when a bias emerges in your own brain, or when you see this happening among any of your managers. Identify behavioural flags that signal there is a problem.

One effective way to bring them to the fore is to set up an anonymous complaints channel, enabling employees to report incidents of bias that have affected them. With meticulous follow-up and investigation, and sensitive counselling of the alleged perpetrator, a hotline of this sort will go a long way to sensitising people to their biases.

The danger is not that you and your management have biases (everyone has), but that these unconscious biases can distort the perception and expectations of individuals, leading to poor judgement and decision-making.

As US author and poet Maya Angelou said: “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” This is as true in business as it is in our dealings with one another on a personal level.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.