How to spot and manage unconscious bias

Our brains are wired to prefer shortcuts to rational debate. Dr Pete Jones looks at what this can do to our decision-making

Research has identified more than 150 cognitive biases or distortions in our daily decision-making processes.

In situations where we are lacking or have ambiguous information, have too much information causing cognitive overload or are forced to decide quickly or are reliant on flawed memory, we can make poor decisions.

Old versus new brains

Dominant logical decision-making is largely a myth; we convince ourselves that we are making reasonable decisions, when in reality, we simply rationalise the intuitive reactions of our brains to random stimulus.

While we are vested with impressive cognition in the brain’s neocortex, which has developed quite recently in evolutionary terms (neocortex simply means the new brain), most routine processing takes place in our ancient limbic system, developed to respond to risk and stimulus.

Our intuitive, automatic and unconscious mind can handle 200,000 times more processing than our effortful, intentional conscious mind largely vested in the neocortex.

Our brain likes to minimise the amount of work it does (the miserly brain) and will make use of cognitive shortcuts where possible, allowing cognitive resources to be directed at the things demanding our immediate attention in the neocortex.

To enable this, the unconscious processes of the brain utilise our previous exposure to patterns as the basis for future rapid decisions, for example, we draw upon patterns of male leadership, extroverted sales staff or the familiar dress codes to make rapid and intuitive judgements about people.

First impressions

For example, the notion that we make interview decisions in the first 10 seconds is an overstatement.

Processing underpinning decision-making can be complete within 100 milliseconds, three times faster than our eyes can even process an interviewee’s image and make sense of it.

We then rationalise the decision of our ancient, innate brain with our modern and underpowered new brain, and convince ourselves it is based on logic.

One area where our innate cognitive biases can have the greatest impact on our business is in the way we unconsciously view and treat people. Such social biases can underpin a good number of the long list of cognitive biases.

Our unconscious brain is a very efficient pattern-matching machine.

It does this automatically, whether or not we are directing our attention to the pattern.
Repeated exposure to social patterns (for example, female receptionists, white leaders in expensive suits, introverts in data-processing roles) leads to the neural pathways between those groups and roles being strengthened within the brain.

It lays myelin, a superconductor, along that neural pathway, making it faster and stronger. The more dominant the pattern, the more we use that pathway, the stronger that association becomes, and the more we use it. And repeat.

As we do this, we add valence to the associations: we are more likely to ascribe positive value to people like us, and less positive associations with people less like us. We have a ‘love prejudice’ for people like us.

The process can then use those patterns and valences for future decision-making, notably who we trust, recruit, support and believe. People who match the pattern are an easy choice for the miserly brain.

Our love prejudices are better described as affinity biases, and affinity bias can underpin and drive the many other biases.

Here are some of the different types of biases you are likely to encounter… or exhibit:

Affinity bias

Affinity bias can steer the direction of many other types of bias and is one of the building blocks of other biases and effects.

It can lead us to favour people from groups for whom we have developed more positive associations, usually people like us, and thus disadvantage people less like us.

If people look like us, sound like us, share our background or interests, we are more likely to lean in their favour in areas such as listening, recruiting, work allocation, performance management and our informal networks.

Bandwagon bias

Once a body of opinion begins to roll in one direction, we seem less able to contradict the prevailing view and tend to acquiesce.

Choice-supporting bias

We tend to remember our decisions as better than they were, excluding from memory events or effects that were less positive. We are then doomed to repeat poor decisions.

Confirmation bias

We see what we expect to see. We begin with a notion of how a person is, and seek out information to confirm that view, ignoring information, which contradicts that view.

Optimism bias

We tend to be overly optimistic as to the likely success of our ideas and intentions.

Reactance bias

In some circumstances, people do the opposite of what we want them to do out of a desire to retain their personal agency, or to resist constraints on your freedom.

For example, objecting to a policy constraining the capacity of a manager/leader to appoint the staff they want in the way they want.

Source bias

Sometimes the source of information becomes more important than the information itself, and avoids any serious challenge, doubt or scrutiny.

Self-investment bias

When we have shown support for an idea, project or person, we can be reluctant to call a halt to that support. We can continue support or investment, long after logic suggests we call a halt.

Suggested actions

Slow down

When people are less like us, taking a few seconds to consider alternatives can be enough to disrupt biased thinking.

Perspective take

When people are less like us, we can struggle to see the issue from their perspective.

We can miss the risks or opportunities to tailor a product or policy. Stopping to actively see things from other perspectives and involve a range of people in decision-making can reduce biased thinking.

Use role models

Actively reminding ourselves of people we have admired from a group can subdue our biases in the short term; long enough to carry out a CV sift, run a meeting or allocate a project.

Get bias tested and trained

Research suggests just one hour of thoughtful training, coupled with testing and review of test results, may mitigate bias. It works best when carried out in teams, with longer training, and the tone of the training needs to be right. An e-learning module may not be enough!

Use debiasing checklists

Debiasing checklists are designed to force us to go through the thinking processes that mitigate bias. They are often simple yes/no questions that force us to talk about and consider factors in our decision-making.

By giving consideration to biases and deploying strategies to counteract them, we can go a long way to undercut the actions of the miserly brain.

About the author

Dr Pete Jones is a psychologist with Shire Professional Chartered Psychologists

This article was taken from the December 2018/January 2019 issue of The Treasurer magazine. For more great insights, log in to view the full issue or sign up for eAffiliate membership

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