Our Hidden Biases and What to Do About Them

A friend of mine once said, “for every PhD thesis, there is an equal and opposite PhD thesis. Certainly, I’ve come to learn there are (at least) two sides to every story and that what we see in a given situation is often exactly what we’re looking for. Cognitive bias research makes it abundantly clear that we are seldom the objective observers and rational decision makers we prefer to believe we are.

an image depicting cognitive function

Cognitive biases are “mental errors caused by our simplified information processing strategies…a cognitive bias does not result from any emotional or intellectual predisposition toward a certain judgment, but rather from subconscious mental procedures for processing information…”[1]

Basically, the brain creates a series of shortcuts, or “rules of thumb” to help us quickly process new information and situations based on past experience and subconscious beliefs. Without ever being consciously aware of it, we are constantly jumping to conclusions. And much like the impact of an optical illusion, a conclusion based on cognitive bias feels “right” —even when we know the bias exists!

If everyone has these cognitive biases, what difference does it make?

More than you might imagine. From hiring to overall business strategy, cognitive bias comes into play. For example, the following excerpt from The Impact of Cognitive Biases on Strategy[2] refers to the tendency to (retrospectively) see things as more orderly and predictable than they are.

“Accurately perceiving the level of environmental uncertainty is critical to the development of strategy and the alignment of organizational resources. Yet there is a broad body of evidence In the behavioural decision-making literature that suggests that accurate perceptions are hard to come by.”

The research paper goes on to explore how this and other cognitive biases impacted the decisions made by executives at IBM in the 1990s and how those decisions led the company to the brink of collapse.

Cognitive Bias and HR

Bringing it back down to the level of day-to-day HR practices, there are a number of cognitive biases that have a direct and profound effect on how we interpret resumes, how we react to candidates in an interview, how we address conflict in the workplace, and how we perceive performance in ourselves and others. Here are just a few of the cognitive biases that direct our responses every day.

Halo Effect

When we notice one positive characteristic about a person, we tend to assume other positive qualities. For example, the attractive, professionally dressed candidate is seen as more competent and trustworthy than the casual or clumsy candidate. This assumption of positive qualities can lead to questionable hires on the basis of cognitive bias rather than objective evidence of ability.

Focus on the evidence and test all assumptions to overcome this bias.

Status Quo Bias

This bias, observed in children as young as 2-3 years of age, refers to the tendency to prefer things the way they are. It’s often expressed in terms of “that’s just the way we do things.” Regardless of the new initiative being proposed, it will likely come up against this bias in one form or another.

To break through this bias, effectively manage and communicate change. And be aware of your own tendency to cling to the comfort of the status quo as well

Recency Bias

Annual performance reviews regularly fall prey to recency bias. People tend to remember recent events much more clearly and will base promotion decisions and performance feedback on those recent events, overlooking longer term performance.

To offset this bias, capture year-round performance data, ideally from multiple sources.

Ingroup Bias

Some cognitive biases get a boost from brain chemistry, in this case oxytocin.[3] The ingroup bias causes us to be more trusting of people we consider part of our “tribe” or ingroup and more suspicious of people outside that circle. In other words, we tend to overestimate the competence, value and character of our immediate group at the expense of people we don’t know as well. It’s also the basis for stereotyping. Begin to overcome ingroup bias by:

  • recognizing the arbitrary nature of many ingroup-outgroup distinctions;
  • putting yourself in the place of the outgroup member;
  • looking for commonalities between the various groups;
  • working on building your inner sense of security; and
  • passing along what you’ve learned.[4]

Confirmation Bias

When a detective decides who’s guilty of a crime and then goes looking only for evidence to confirm that theory, she is exhibiting confirmation bias. Managers often make decisions based on what they believe about employees just as recruiters often make hiring recommendations based on what they believe about candidates. Unfortunately, the confirmation bias creates a filter that makes it almost impossible to perceive information that contradicts those beliefs.

To tackle this bias, gather as much objective evidence as you can and base decisions on that. [5]

Negativity Bias

People give more weight to negative information and feedback than they do to positive information and feedback. In fact, research shows that it takes five positive interactions to balance the impact of one negative interaction.[6] What’s worse, recent evidence shows that exposure to negative news has a significant suppressive effect on mood and performance[7]—and there is no limit to the amount of negative news bombarding workers through multiple channels every day.

To avoid the spiral of negativity, you need to limit the flow of negatives and over compensate with positives.

Bandwagon effect

Belonging and fitting-in are strong human needs. That’s why we’re far more likely to adopt a particular position, behave a particular way, or agree with a particular decision if we see that it’s embraced by others. As more people support something, others “jump on the bandwagon,” sometimes even to the degree of completely contradicting a previous stance. In the workplace, the most common example of the bandwagon effect is groupthink, which can result in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making.

The best way to resist the bandwagon effect is to hone your critical thinking skillsand thoroughly research issues under discussion.

Cognitive biases exist and no one is immune to their effect. Even when we think we’re exploring options with an unbiased eye our subconscious is filtering and distorting our perceptions. Enhanced self-awareness is a good start to overcoming cognitive bias, but it’s not enough. It’s also important to develop discernment and strengthen critical thinking skills to overcome the brains tendency to rely on cognitive shortcuts.


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Photo Credit: Photo by Master isolated images, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

[1] What are Cognitive Biases? Center for the Study of Intelligence – Central Intelligence Agency

[2] Bukszar, E. (1999), Strategic Bias: The Impact of Cognitive Biases on Strategy. CAN J ADM SCI, 16: 105–117. doi: 10.1111/j.1936-4490.1999.tb00617.x

[3] Carsten K. W. De Dreu1 , Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi, and Michel J. J. Handgraaf (2010) Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism  http://dtserv2.compsy.uni-jena.de/__C12579DF0051D127.nsf/0/73428FD7259421E5C12579E40058060B/$FILE/DeDreu_2011_OxytocinPromotesHumanEthnocentrism.pdf

[4] Susan Krausse Whitbourne, Ph.D.  In-groups, out-groups, and the psychology of crowds https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201012/in-groups-out-groups-and-the-psychology-crowds

[5] D. Griffin and A. Tversky. The Weighing of Evidence and the Determinants of Confidence. http://synapse.princeton.edu/~sam/griffin_tversky92_cognitive_psychology_weighing-evidence-confidence.pdf

[7] Shawn AchorMichelle Gielan Harvard Business Review. Consuming Negative News Can Make You Less Effective at Work https://hbr.org/2015/09/consuming-negative-news-can-make-you-less-effective-at-work

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