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Biased? We All Are!

| December 1, 2015

by Jim Bruce

In a recent essay, “Beyond Bias,” which is today’s Tuesday Reading, Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock wrote:
“Biases are nonconscious drivers – cognitive quirks – that influence how people see the world.  They appear to be universal in most of humanity, perhaps hardwired into the brain as part of our genetic or cultural heritage, and they can exert their influence outside conscious awareness.  You cannot go shopping, enter a conversation, or make a decision without your biases kicking in.
“On the whole, biases are helpful and adaptive.  They enable people to make quick, efficient judgments and decisions with minimal cognitive effort.  But they can also blind a person to new information, or inhibit someone from considering valuable options when making an important decision.”
Further into their essay, the authors note:  “Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that educating people about biases does anything to reduce their influence.  Human biases occur outside conscious awareness, and thus people are literally unaware of them as they occur.  As an individual, you cannot consciously ‘watch out for biases,’ because there will never be anything to see.  It would be like trying to ‘watch out’ for how much insulin you are producing.”
So, how can we overcome our biases?  Halvorson and Rock argue that organizations and teams can become far more aware of biases than can individuals.  Further, they argue that it’s possible to develop team-based practices that can identify biases as they emerge and counteract them in the moment, mitigating their impact.
Given that biases do occur frequently in every aspect of our lives, cognitive scientists have divided the 150 or so known common biases into five categories based on their underlying cognitive nature:  Similarity, Expedience, Experience, Distance, and Safety (or SEEDS™ as named by the Neuroscience Institute).
Similarity Biases:  “People like me are better than others.”  Most of us feel highly motivated to focus our attention on that which portrays us in the most favorable light.  This motivation affects how you perceive other individuals and groups.  These biases are actually part of your brain’s defense system designed to promote and protect you and those associated with you.  They also perpetuate stereotypes and prejudice, even when they are counterproductive.  The most prevalent forms of these biases are called ingroup and outgroup biases.  You generally hold a positive perception of individuals similar to you (the ingroup) and a negative perception of those that are different (the outgroup).
Our authors suggest that the best way to combat similarity bias is to identify commonalities with those who appear to be different.  If you pay attention to their goals, values, experiences and preferences, your brain will recognize the “similarities” it discovers and recategorize these individuals.  This will create a more level playing field.
Expedience Biases:  “If it feels right, it must be true.”  These biases are the mental shortcuts that help us make quick and efficient decisions.  Perhaps the most common of this family is the availability bias.  This is our tendency to make a decision based upon the information that is most readily accessible in the brain.  These biases cut our search short for more information that is potentially relevant.
These biases tend to appear in decisions that require concentrated effort – developing strategies, data analysis, making complex decisions, etc.  They also appear when we are in a hurry or “cognitively depleted.”  These biases can be mitigated by making sure that adequate time is scheduled for the task, by establishing a team norm of discussing decisions in the spirit of team collaboration, and by breaking large complex issues into smaller components and involving others in the work.
Experience Biases:  “My perceptions must be accurate.”  Our brains have evolved to regard our own perceptions as truth, what “I” see is all there is to see, and all of it is accurate.  But, this overlooks all the processes in the brain that construct the reality you see. “Your expectations, past experiences, personality, and emotional state all color your perception of what is happening in the world.”  If you hold a strong belief in your own reality, then individuals with a different view must be incorrect or lying.  It is almost impossible to convince someone who holds a strong belief that he or she is mistaken.  Such biases set the stage for unnecessary conflicts.
Seeking opinions from people outside the situation can mitigate experience biases.  How do they see the situation?  What are the proponents missing?  And, if you are the individual who has the “evidence,” take a “time-out” and carefully look at your position through your own and other’s eyes.
Distance Biases:  “Near is stronger than far.”  Brain scans have shown that the brain registers all sorts of conceptual proximity – e.g., whether or not you own an object, as well as proximity in space and in time.  The closer the object, the greater the value.  This, for example, leads you to work on lower valued immediate tasks than on much higher valued future tasks even when you know that you don’t have adequate time to complete the future tasks.
You can mitigate this bias by taking distance out of the evaluation.  Evaluate the task or objective as if you were close in space, time, or ownership.
Safety Biases:  “Bad is stronger than good.”  Safety biases cluster around the concept that negative information tends to be more salient and motivating than positive information.  So, for example, losing $20 feels worse than finding $20 feels good.  Finding a major error in a system feels worse than completing the system feels good.  Studies suggest that a helpful way to mitigate safety biases is to recast history.  Take the view that the decision has already been made and you are looking at it from a later point in time.  Doing this reduces the emotion, increases the objectivity, and is less tied to yourself.
All the mitigation strategies identified in connection with the five families of biases engage a part of the brain (the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) which acts, in this case, like a braking system helping you to exercise cognitive control and broaden your attention beyond your own, self-specific viewpoint.  They represent a set of tools that can help us effectively use, manage, and mitigate the impact of the biases we have. 
As you face biases both in your personal and organizational world, it may be helpful for you to keep four general principles in mind:

1.     Bias is universal.  Humans are predisposed to make fast, efficient judgments.  If you believe you are less biased than others, that may be a sign that you are even more biased than you believe.

2.     It is very difficult to manage bias in the moment when you are making a decision.  Design practices and processes in advance to help you in situations where more deliberate thought is necessary.

3.     Place a premium on practices and processes that involve cognitive effort instead of intuition and gut reaction.

4.     Individual cognitive effort is not sufficient. “You have to cultivate an organization-wide culture in which people continually remind each other that the brain’s default setting is egocentric, that they will sometimes get stuck in a belief that their [own] experience and perception of reality is the only objective truth, and that better decisions will come from stepping back to seek out a wider variety of experiences and views.”

We all have biases.  Spend some time this week watching for how your biases shape and have shaped your life and work.  And, also ask what new practices you might, both personally and as a team, adopt to be more open to other options in the future.
Do make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist and associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School.  She is also a senior consultant for the NeuroLeadership Institute.  Her most recent book is No One Understands You and What To Do About It
David Rock is cofounder and director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together.  He is the author of Your Brain at Work:  Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.  Rock is also the CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.