Can you even detect your biases? Most likely not. Cognitive (or thought) bias is pervasive. Yet getting beyond our biases whenever possible helps us succeed, no matter what we’re undertaking.
Why? Because cognitive bias is a predictable pattern of thoughts and behaviors that lead you to draw incorrect conclusions. And getting beyond bias is important not just to social justice, but to healthy and successful business environments.
Flavors of Cognitive Bias
Modern psychology identifies quite a few types of cognitive bias. I’ll cover just a few of these flavors of bias here and how they can hurt your performance.
- Confirmation bias – favoring ideas that support our existing beliefs – can deeply damage the ability to innovate, create, and make significant progress… let alone be a disruptor.
- Negativity bias – a tendency to register negative stimuli more readily than positive ones, and also to dwell on negative events – can make you risk-averse. It can also create a demotivating downward spiral. Most organizations compound this by looking for problems to fix, rather than strengths to leverage or successes to celebrate.
- Curse of knowledge – feeling that some information you have had for a while is obvious – often leads to misunderstandings and an inability of those with less experience to learn and succeed.
- Sunk costs – or a desire to recover time and energy already spent – make it difficult to see when to cut your losses. In business, this leads us to compound poor choices, and neglect better ones.
- Declination bias – or the notion that everything is getting worse – leads to nostalgia. This is basically denying the reality of progress made. Change is challenging but necessary for survival.
- Attentional bias – our perceptions are affected by our thoughts – means we actually often don’t see the situation around us clearly. Note that in the cartoon image here, the person’s thought bubble does not include the actual landscape.
Much like sugar-laden foods, these may seem tasty (or familiar). However, they have harmful long-term effects and take conscious effort to change as a habitual pattern.
Exercises to Notice Bias
So here are some ways to begin to notice bias. These are independent activities, starting with what is likely easier to detect.
Bias toward you: Notice when you feel you may not have been treated fairly. Being passed over for a plum project or promotion, being left out of a decision, or feeling your ideas are not heard tends to be painful. To learn about this, you might be able to ask the person (or people) you feel had some control and ask them about how they perceive you. It may be bias, or they may have sound reasoning. This will make both you and them more aware of potential bias, and might also clear the air.
Bias among others: Notice potential bias in others. When you are feel that someone else is not being treated as they should be (positive or negative), you can explore that. Sometimes talking to the people involved will be important to get their perspectives.
Your biases: Notice your own perceptions of specific people, processes or situations. Each of us have opinions, and while some of that is likely based on fact, it’s almost guaranteed that your biases will play a role too. See if you can pretend to be a neutral observer and detect the truth. Witness the assumptions you have made. Are they true? Are you sure? If possible, talk to the person about your perception. The line I like is “The story I’ve made up about this is…” as a safe way to share and get someone’s reaction.
Beyond Your Biases
In fact, just training yourself to be more aware, and more self-aware is the foundation. Cataloguing some of the biases that you become aware of can aid in minimizing their impact.
Fine-tuning your sensory perceptions to see what is truly there can also help to keep you grounded in reality vs. your biases. This HBR article discusses a study that showed that a simple mindful breathing exercise had the effect of making people less biased.
You will still have to work at this – everyone does. Yet with practice, you can more easily spot bias, stop, and examine how to get to a more accurate and well-founded decision or opinion.
Especially with decision-making and relationships, getting beyond your bias is essential for success.