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Train Your Brain

| April 17, 2018

by Jim Bruce

. . .  to help you avoid your biases

Today’s Tuesday Reading turns again to focus on another aspect of bias, how to keep our minds from falling for bad advice.
In the March 6, 2018 Tuesday Reading Biases, we noted that an individual’s personal cognitive biases can be helpful and adaptive, and also that they may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation.  In a NeuroLeadership Institute paper, Breaking Bias,1 Lieberman, Rock, and Cox define cognitive biases as “the unconscious drivers that influence our judgment and decision making.”
Author and educator Kendra Cherry,2 provides us with a short list of common biases:

  • Confirmation Bias – Favoring information that agrees with your existing beliefs and discounting or ignoring information that disagrees.
  • Availability Bias – Placing greater value on information that comes to mind quickly.
  • Attentional Bias – Paying attention to some information about a situation while simultaneously ignoring, perhaps more important, other relevant information.
  • Functional Fixedness Bias – Pigeon-holing a staff member in a narrow job while she has broader skills and capabilities.

Researchers have identified over 160 cognitive biases.3  In their paper, Beyond Bias,4 Halvorson and Rock have grouped many of the long list of biases into five broad categories based upon their underlying cognitive nature – similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety.  (Their research group, the NeuroLeadership Institute, has named this model SEEDSTM.)  Each of the five categories can be described by a short description that helps us remember the model and what that category is all about:
Similarity – “People like me are better than others.”  We tend to favor other individuals who are similar to ourselves. 
Expedience – “If it feels right, it must be true.”  We jump to conclusions without seeing all the evidence, thus making it very difficult to be objective.

Experience – “My perceptions are accurate.”  We believe our own perspectives most accurately reflect reality. 
Distance – “Near is stronger than far.”  We see what is near in space, time, or perceived ownership as more valuable.
Safety – “Bad is stronger than good.”  We significantly over emphasize what is bad compared to what is good. 
With this as background, the March 13, 2018 Tuesday Reading, Mitigating Bias, explored how these five types of bias can impact our hiring processes and who we hire.  We specifically noted that these biases make being objective very hard and can distort our first impressions, assumptions, and expectations about each of the applications for a position and particularly those who go on to be interviewed.  In the reading, we also suggested several interventions that can be employed to reduce the effects of any bias that is present.
The March 27, 2018 Tuesday Reading, Think Fast, Think Slow, focused on the work of Daniel Kahneman and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.5  There he defines two modes of thinking, System 1 which “operates automatically and quickly with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” and System 2 which “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it.”
We noted there that when we think of our own thinking, we identify with System 2 thinking – that’s where we have beliefs, make choices, and decide what to do.  That’s where we think the major activity of the brain resides.  Kahneman would be quick to argue, not so.  He sees System 1 “as the source originating the impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.”
While we don’t have a good answer to the question of how our biases are formed, we do know that System 1 is aware of our biases and that they do impact our System 1 thinking.  Ameet Ranadive, in his paper “What I Learned from Thinking Fast and Slow,”6 put it this way:  System 1 is continuously creating impressions, intuitions, and judgments based on everything we are sensing.  In most cases we just go with the impression or intuition that System 1 generates.”  System 1 is very aware that are unconscious drivers such as, in-group/out-group bias, similarity bias, confirmation bias, etc., that influence our judgment and decision making. 
So, then, with this understanding of bias and how it acts in our brain, how might we train our brain to be less biased as we work alone and in groups to accomplish our goals?  Here are five suggestions, first for you personally and then for your work with others.

  1. Plan your work.  Earlier this year, in a Tuesday Reading, Your Daily Calendar, I urged leaders to take the time to carefully plan and manage your day.  Think through your work, plan out the steps you need to take for each task, provide times for preparation for your meetings and for time for focused work on your individual projects.  And, I noted that you need to put everything you plan to do on a particular day on the calendar for that day.  If you do this planning work, you will be more aware of the biases you may experience.
  2. Keep a running To Do list.  Art Markman,7 Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, Austin, strongly argues that everyone should keep a running list of all the tasks you expect to undertake.  He notes that writing your To Do list is similar to taking notes in a lecture – you filter internal and external information, summarize it, and write it down.  This helps you distil what you heard and/or were thinking and also helps you to better remember it. 
  3. Pay attention to who you listen to.  Khalil Smith,8 head of the diversity and inclusion practice at the NeuroLeadership Institute, notes that “instead of relying on subject matter experts, people often pay closest attention to the person who talks most frequently, or has the most impressive title, or comes from the CEO’s home town.  And that’s because of how our brains are built.”  “The group decision-making process, rather than aligning with actual competence, habitually falls for messy proxies of expertise, a phrase coined by University of Utah management professor Bryan Bonner.  Essentially, when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus on the loudest or tallest person in the room.  Over time, letting false expertise run the show can have negative side effects.”  So, nudge yourself into doing more rational thinking and identifying and correcting the errors we make as a result of bias in our thinking and execution.  Remember, as Smith noted in his essay, that people are not naturally skilled at figuring out who they should be listening to.
  4. Combat your own decision-making bias.  Smith also notes that in the West, in particular, we are trained to go our own way as quickly and confidently as possible.  This may be the path that is the least resistant to bias.  He suggests five approaches that we might deploy to nudge us individually and in groups towards more objective thinking:
    1. Set up “if-then” plans.  Look for differences between your actual behavior and your preferred behavior.  For example, If I find myself agreeing with everything a particular individual says, then I will seek out another individual whom I trust and repeat the information to him to get his opinion.
    2. Be explicit, and do it in writing.  Write down, in detail, the process you propose to follow in going forward.  Insist that groups be similarly explicit.
    3. Incentivize awareness.  Find a way to reward team members who detect flaws in their thinking and make course corrections.  Smith notes that the NeuroLeadership Institute has a “mistake of the month” agenda item in work-in-progress meetings to model and celebrate such admissions.
    4. Set up buffers.  Create a time buffer between when you receive information and when a decision is made to move forward.
    5. Cut the cues.  Many decisions are unduly influenced by who’s involved, who made the proposal.  The “who” can trigger both similarity and expedience biases.  Brian Bonner, University of Utah management professor urges, that, in so far as possible, you take the humanity out of the process.
  5. Selectively filter the data you receive.  Tara Swart,9 neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor, argues that only by evaluating the relevance of the data we receive will we be able to intentionally focus on what’s important.  She notes that putting a task on our To Do list moves that task from the unconscious to the conscious and signifies its importance.  Being intentional is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for us to explore an issue in a bias-aware manner.

We are all influenced by biases throughout every day.  Khalil Smith reminds us that “Biases are human – a function of our brains – and falling for them doesn’t make us malicious.  We have the capacity to nudge ourselves toward more rational thinking, to identify and correct the errors we make as a result of bias, and to build institutions that promote good, clear thinking and decision making.”  Perhaps this is something that we can each give more attention to beginning today.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Matthew Lieberman, David Rock, and Christine Cox, Breaking Bias, NeuroLeadership Journal, Volume 5, May 2014.
  2. Kendra Cherry How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act,, January 4, 2018.
  3. List of cognitive biases, Wikipedia. 
  4. Heidi Grant Halvorson and David Rock, Beyond Bias, strategy+business, July 2015.
  5. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC, 2011.
  6. Ameet Rannadive, What I Learned from “Thinking Fast and Slow,”, February 2017.
  7. Art Markman, How Writing To-Do Lists Helps Your Brain (Whether Or Not You Finish Them),, September 2016.
  8. Khalil Smith, Why Our Brains Fall for False Expertise, and How to Stop It, strategy+business, March 2018.
  9. Tara Swart, The Hidden Reason These Common Productivity Habits Help Your Brain,, March 2018.