Bias Now, Pay Later

The idea of how cognitive bias influences our lives has always been something society at large has struggled to overcome. Within recent years, biases in the workplace, primarily related to race, gender, or sexual orientation, have all become (thankfully) prevailing in the zeitgeist. What is often left out of these broad conversations is the concept that those macro biases are rooted in micro biases that are so subtle that most of us are unaware that we harbor them. 

Take, for instance, men with beards (such as yours truly). In a study by Canada’s McMaster University, researchers found that when participants were presented with photographs of two Caucasian males and asked to make a judgment of which they found more trustworthy, they were significantly more likely to choose bearded over clean-shaven men. 

The possible implications of this seemingly harmless cultural bias among Canadians are that customers listening to a sales pitch from a bearded salesman might be more likely to buy what’s being offered, while clean-shaven men might have a more difficult time winning job positions or promotions when competing with a bearded man. 

This is just one example of the nuanced levels of subconscious programming that influence our thinking and behavior. Whether the program was written by our parents, society, traumatic events, or eons of human evolution, we are often entirely unaware of this nearly invisible influence on our thinking and actions. These subtle biases include: 

  • Confirmation Bias: when we give more attention to information that confirms the beliefs we already have 
  • Hindsight Bias: when we tend to see events, even random ones, as more predictable than they are 
  • Anchoring Bias: when we allow ourselves to be overly influenced by the first piece of information that we hear 
  • Misinformation Effect: when our memories of particular events are heavily influenced by things that happened after the actual event itself 
  • Actor-Observer Bias: when we explain away our own actions as being subject to external influences, while we attribute the cause of others actions to being some internal flaw (I’m late because my alarm didn’t go off vs. Rob is late because he doesn’t think ahead to set his alarm) 
  • False Consensus Effect: when people overestimate the rate at which others agree with their own beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and values – this also leads to people overvaluing their own opinions 
  • Halo Effect: when we allow our initial impression of a person to influence what we think of them overall 
  • Self-Serving Bias: when we give ourselves credit for our successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes 
  • Availability Heuristic: when we estimate the probability of something happening based on how many examples readily come to mind 
  • Optimism Bias: when we overestimate the likelihood of good things happening to us, and bad things happening to other people 

These ten most common biases exist because the unconscious brain processes information 200,000 times faster than the conscious mind. It does this much like AI, and machine learning do today, by looking for patterns and making decisions based on the predictability it finds. Our minds then use this pattern recognition to influence our behavior to keep us safe and alive, by enabling us to recognize in an instant if we have been surprised, for example, by friends or enemies. 

However, allowing these biases to go unchecked can significantly limit our experiences in life. Unbiased thinking offers up more opportunities for better life experiences because we are more naturally open to new things in life – new ideas, perspectives, people, and activities. This openness leads to better results at home and in the workplace, and introduces us to a greater diversity of people and thought processes that we can draw from to navigate the challenges we face. 

In business, allowing unconscious bias to dominate your thinking can lead to a host of challenging situations, such as passing over qualified candidates for job positions, undervaluing employees, losing rapport with customers, and more. One Mckinsey study revealed that hedge funds that addressed bias thinking in their investment decisions resulted in 100 to 300 basis point improvements on actual fund performance. 

At home, unconscious bias can lead to incorrect assumptions about a family member’s behavior, the rejection of a suitable mate or family member, or other outcomes. More importantly, when we allow unconscious bias to go unfettered at home, we inadvertently end up teaching those same patterns to our children. This simply continues the cycle of unconscious bias for another generation. 

Breaking the cycle of bias thinking can be a life’s work, and indeed, it can take generations for a society to release its bias thinking collectively. To get started, here are some things to consider: 

Identify Your Tendencies 

The first step to breaking the cycle of bias is to identify what your personal tendencies are. Harvard University has created a series of reputable online tests called Project Implicit to assist this activity. There are a variety of tests you can choose from, depending on what social biases you think you might have. 

Catch the Bias Thinking as it Happens 

Once you know what your bias triggers might be, you can work to bring this unconscious thinking into your conscious awareness. When we notice our biased thinking in real-time or soon afterward, we can stop ourselves and attempt to reframe the thoughts into unbiased ones. Then, the next time the trigger occurs, we are slightly more prepared to combat the pattern of thought faster. Do this enough, and the bias ceases to be unconscious. 

Change Your Environment 

If our thoughts are rooted in decisions that unconsciously help us feel safe, then to break biased thinking requires making unbiased thought patterns feel just as “safe.” Consider taking the elements that trigger a bias reaction and exposing yourself to them daily. This could be done by adding elements in your space that challenge you to think differently (images or sayings on the wall for example) or engaging in activities within your community that can help you think and feel differently about certain things. As an example, the University of Washington demonstrated that adding more feminine decor to computer science classrooms strengthened women’s associations of female gender and the possibility of computer science careers. 

Find Members Of Underrepresented Groups That You Admire 

Dr. Buju Dasgupta revealed that when people expose themselves to individuals they admire from disadvantaged groups (African Americans, LGBT, elderly, women, etc.), they express less implicit bias against these groups. You can use this to overcome other types of biases by identifying a person you admire, who also represents something that might trigger you. Over time your admiration for this person can help you shift any bias thinking you might have. 

Blind Yourself 

A tactic becoming popular in selection processes to reduce hiring bias is blind recruitment. This is the process of removing race or gender from the equation so that the selection is based more on merit. As an example, when orchestras began auditioning musicians from behind a screen, they were five times as likely to select a woman as when they had watched musicians perform. In the workplace, you can do this by removing candidates names or institutional affiliations from résumés, or systemizing a scoring process that only allows the top 5 performers through to the next round regardless of any other factors. 

Bias thinking is a natural aspect of our neurology, and in a healthy state, it provides our minds with a significant amount of processing efficiency. However, left unchecked it can limit the types of experiences and opportunities we have in life, reducing a potential kaleidoscope of variety to something resembling a monotone worldview. 

This week, take on the challenge of identifying your most prevalent bias thinking and commit to tackling it head-on. Start by taking one of the Project Implicit quizzes on that subject and review the results with an open mind. Next, adopt at least two suggestions listed above to begin breaking the cycle of your biased thinking. Pay attention to any resistance or limiting beliefs that rise to the surface as you conduct this growth work, as well as any positive changes that you notice. At the end of the week, review your work, and recommit to continuing the growth for the next week. After three months, retake the same Project Implicit quiz, to see how your thoughts have improved. 

“You can’t change who you are, but you can change what you have in your head, you can refresh what you’re thinking about, you can put some fresh air in your brain.” — Ernesto Bertarelli, Italian-born Swiss billionaire businessman and philanthropist (1965- )

Take charge of your business success.

Schedule a complimentary one-on-one consultation, where you can discuss what you are looking to achieve in your life and business, learn more about what Julien offers and determine together whether his services are a good fit.