From cooking dinner to deciding which new project to tackle at work, you make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Some of these decisions are so automatic that you don’t even think about them. And the decisions that you do think about (and put hours of research into) may not be as objective and rational as you may think.
Instead, you are blissfully overlooking biases that sway your decision-making and have a profound impact on the results of those choices.
Biases, more specifically cognitive biases, are your unchecked tendencies to make decisions or take actions in an irrational way. This concept was first introduced in the early 1970s by psychologists who published their findings in 1982 in their book, Judgment Under Uncertainty. They uncovered that instead of making decisions based on facts and data, you are more prone to base your decisions on unconscious errors that lead to a distorted judgment of the world. These biases ultimately affect your relationships, work, and worldview.
Let’s dive in to understand how they are formed in the human brain and meet seven overlooked biases that creep into your work and undermine its success.
Your Brain and Biases = A Lazy Union
There’s no doubt that the brain is a remarkably powerful organ. It makes 1,016 processes per second while also making hundreds of decisions every day, from where to eat lunch, to when your product should enter a new market. Yet despite its power, the brain is lazy.
Here’s what happens: the brain creates shortcuts in order to make fast decisions when it hits information or inspiration overload. These shortcuts form unconscious biases so it’s easier for your brain to categorize information and make quick judgments over and over again.
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You don’t even realize this is happening, though. MRI imaging and the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveal that “decision-making automatically triggers specific regions of the brain responsible for unconscious processing.” One region is the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) that responds to fear. The test showed that increased amygdala activity occurs when the brain responds to perceived threats and creates bias as a survival mechanism. Bottom line: your brain will automatically create biased shortcuts when you encounter experiences or information that is different than your preconceptions.
On top of it all, your cognitive processes also play a part in how the brain creates biases. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman identifies two different ways the brain forms thoughts and eventually makes decisions:
- System 1: The automatic, frequent, emotional, and subconscious way
- System 2: The slow, logical, calculating, and conscious way
Kahneman explains that System 1’s thinking is based on existing patterns and thoughts, rather than new information or experiences. This system is responsible for creating cognitive biases and basically overrides the reasoning of System 2. So even when your mind is focused on System 2 activities, System 1 and your biases take control and lead to erroneous decision-making.
Which Brain Shortcuts Are You Using?
Here are some of the most common biases that your brain tends to take, and a look at how you can bypass them the next time you need to make an important decision.
1. Self-serving BiasYou put a lot of time and effort into succeeding in your job, education, and relationships. Since you dedicate so much time to these endeavors, you want full ownership of any success related to them. But when it comes to failures, you turn on your heel and run away from them at the speed of light.
Self-serving bias causes you to do exactly this—claim your successes and ignore your failures. This means that when something good happens, you take the credit, but when something bad happens, you blame it on external factors.
Think about when you aced an exam at school. You most likely attributed your success to a long night of studying. However, if you failed the exam, you most likely found an external reason to blame, such as your teacher not liking you.
Self-serving bias may manifest at work when you receive critical feedback. Instead of keeping an open mind, you may put up a defense when your manager or team member is sharing feedback or constructive criticism. If you can’t accept your mistakes and flaws, then you won’t have the opportunity to correct your course and improve in the future.
2. Survivorship BiasWhen thinking of the word ‘survivorship’, you might be tempted to sing some Destiny’s Child (“I’m a survivor, I’m not gon’ give up…”).
Just like Destiny’s Child, survivors are often idolized in popular culture. They are commonly referred to as “thought leaders,” “trailblazers,” “pioneers,” and “innovators.” These are people who work hard, lead successful lives, and receive admiration and fame.
But what about losers and failures? David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart, explains in his article about survivorship bias that “after any process that leaves behind survivors, the non-survivors are often destroyed or muted or removed from your view. If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes.” For example: Do you ever remember who lost a championship game or got a silver medal at the Olympics?
When you solely focus on success, survivorship bias comes out to play and causes you to think that something is easy because you only hear stories of people who triumphed.
By only focusing on success, you are missing out on a wealth of information available in failures. Failures can teach a multitude of lessons and give valuable insight into how to improve in the future.
3. Confirmation BiasConfirmation bias is the tendency to trust information that confirms your preconceptions. At the same time, you ignore or dismiss opinions that disagree with your own, even if they are factual and valid.
Confirmation bias is one of the most common mindsets that creep into work and everyday decision-making. For example, you are assigned a large market research project to determine which industry the company should enter in the new year. You think it should be fitness, but your data and research says otherwise. Instead of accepting the data that conflicts with your opinion, you may begin to research sources and information, or even do your own tests, to prove that your preconception is accurate and the right move for your organization.
Even Warren Buffett actively fights his confirmation bias by acknowledging it and seeking out information that disagrees with his beliefs. To avoid confirmation bias, Buffett invited hedge fund trader, Doug Kass, to a Berkshire Hathaway meeting so he could share his differing opinions to Buffett’s investment strategies.
If that’s not enough reason to challenge your confirmation bias, take the advice from Albert Einstein, who once said:
“If the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.”
4. Anchoring BiasAnchoring bias is the tendency to rely heavily on one piece of information (often the first thing you hear) when making decisions.
This is why it pays off to be the first one to offer a bolstering range instead of a firm number when negotiating your salary. The first offer will establish the possibilities in each person’s mind. So if you allow your boss to offer you a raise of $5,000 per year first, and you were hoping to earn $10,000 more, it may be more difficult to change his or her mind during the negotiation conversation. In this scenario your boss is using the $5,000 figure as the anchor point, thus doubling that figure might be perceived as excessive.
5. Bandwagon Bias
Hold onto your hat and jump on for a conforming ride. The bandwagon bias occurs when you adopt a belief just because more people hold that belief. This bias can lead to groupthink, which is the tendency for group members to over-conform to a leader.
Many work meetings become unproductive due to bandwagon bias and groupthink because team members don’t feel comfortable challenging collective agreement or don’t even realize their level of conformity to the group’s beliefs.
When all members of your team agree, it sets a status quo that is difficult to challenge. Instead, you’ll hear excuses like “This is how we’ve always done it,” which can become detrimental to the successful evolution of the whole team and organization. Ultimately, the bandwagon bias can lead to a stunt in creativity and innovation in your teams if nobody feels comfortable sharing alternative ideas and beliefs.
6. Planning FallacyIf you’re a project manager, you may recognize this common bias.
Planning fallacy is the tendency to underestimate how long tasks will take to complete. On top of it, instead of accepting your own fault, you place the blame on outside factors such as delayed start dates or sick days.
For example, as a project manager, you are skilled at mapping project timelines and the number of tasks and duration needed for each task to meet a deadline. Although you think through each step, you may underestimate how long each task will take to complete and forget to bake in time for unforeseen snafus that may prolong the project. That’s the planning fallacy working hard to undermine your success.
Many successful people fall into the planning fallacy trap: Elon Musk is notorious for prescribing unrealistic deadlines that are inevitably pushed back. He has said that over time he has worked on improving in this area.
7. The Bias Blind SpotDid you make it to this point and still have difficulty seeing yourself in the examples provided? Do you still think you live a life free from subjective thoughts and irrational decisions? Could you think of someone in your team who harbours these biases, but not yourself?
You can thank your bias blind spot for that.
This is the failure to recognize the impact of bias on your own judgment. The term was created by Emily Pronin, a social psychologist from Princeton University, and her colleagues, Daniel Lin and Lee Ross. They tested more than 600 people in the United States and discovered that 85% of them believed they were less biased than the average American. Only one participant believed she or he was more biased than the average American. In addition, the majority of these participants could identify cognitive biases more easily in others than in themselves.
“We're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to know how little we know,” said bias researcher Daniel Kahneman. So despite the extensive research and data supporting the existence of our cognitive biases, many of us disagree and even ignore the effects of bias in our lives even when we’re fully aware of it.
Productive Ways To Keep Your Biases In Check
Your biases are a part of you, just like the memories and experiences that contributed to them. Although they can’t be removed, they can be recognized and changed. By becoming actively aware of your biases and practicing these strategies, you can produce objective opinions and make more rational decisions:
- Practice honest self-criticism and reflection
The first step to mastering your biases is through awareness. Once you are aware of them, it’s important to regularly reflect on your decisions and criticize yourself kindly and honestly. Did you make that recent decision based on a preconception or on research and facts that disagree with your beliefs? When was the last time you challenged a strategy at work that you didn’t agree with?
- Will yourself to think in a specific way
You can rely on self-directed neuroplasticity to train your brain to think in a certain way. Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally. Through mindfulness meditation, Michael Taft, author of The Mindful Geek, explains in this podcast that you can achieve a level of brain shaping that allows you to think differently and eventually counteract your biases. Even though the brain is lazy, you can take control and begin to change your neurons and synapses to achieve objective thoughts through these processes.
- Diversify your team
A diverse team brings various opinions, experiences, values, and goals to the table. By building such a team, you have the opportunity to avoid the traps of common cognitive biases. Team members will challenge one another's’ worldviews, resulting in different and successful strategies to achieve business goals.
Biases can operate without effort and even without your awareness of their influence. You have the brainpower to actively prevent them from creeping into your work. You are just a few self-reflective moments away from a perspective that is rooted in rational and objective thoughts!
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