What is Cognitive Bias?
24th October 2019
One of our brain’s primary roles is to make our lives as easy as possible for us.
As much as we like to think we’re in full control, our brain has limitations when it comes to processing large amounts of information. For example, scientists estimate that we are subject to around 11 million pieces of information at any one time, but the brain only processes around 40-50 pieces of information of which 5-7 are processed consciously.
Cognitive biases are shortcuts the brain uses to help us perceive the world in a way that may not always match reality. We like to think we’re objective in how we experience the world, but this is very rarely the case. We all have our filters through which we see things in different ways. Our preconceptions, past experiences or social factors create these unique filters that can create a feeling or thought that doesn’t necessarily mean it is truly representative of reality.
Simply put, cognitive biases create the gap that often exists between our perception and reality, giving us our lens through which we view the world.
Whilst unconscious biases have been studied in the academic world for years, HR practitioners are increasingly beginning to understand how these can creep into our systems and processes at work. This might be our recruitment process, how we promote or even how we manage performance.
Here are 5 common biases that can affect our processes in the workplace (by the way… there are over 180 identified cognitive biases!):
We have a tendency to be drawn to people that are similar to us and share some kind of characteristic(s) with us. For example, it could be related to primary diversity characteristics such as race, gender, disability etc., or even personality, hobbies and where we went to university. Reflecting on who we associate with (whether that be friends or work colleagues) on a regular basis can help us to challenge the feeling of liking someone because we share something with them. Remember, this is an unconscious process, so we don’t always realise we’re doing it.
Given that our brain likes to make things easy for us and will generally try to avoid creating experiences of discomfort, we tend to look for information that helps confirm our beliefs, preconceptions and even stereotypes. Regularly monitoring data on our hiring process for example, can help us see patterns that might highlight trends about who we shortlist and subsequently hire.
Most of us have been in a group situation where we don’t agree with what is being said among our peers about a particular subject (it could be an interview panel) and instead of challenging we suppress our own objections in favour of group harmony. This is a common problem when it comes to interview panels, any decision committee or even where you decide to go for dinner with a group of friends. One way to overcome groupthink in an interview panel for example, is to ask everyone to write down their objections, views, assessments or scores on a piece of paper and have them read these out before any verbal discussion takes place. Essentially, you want to reveal your cards so you don’t get swayed by the group.
Like affinity bias, where we like people who are similar to us (and see them as unique individuals), people not in these in-groups are in our ‘out-groups’. Anyone that we (or our brain) view as an outsider is lumped into one big group. We have created a perception that everyone outside our group is very similar. One way to overcome this out-group homogeneity is to find out more about people outside our in-groups and look for counter-stereotypical information.
Status quo bias
Most psychologists will tell you that cognitive biases are based on survival instincts and stem from our prehistoric ancestors. Our fifth and final example, status quo bias, is a key example of how our need for stability ad routine can influence our behaviour.
Status quo bias is a preference to keep things relatively unchanged. When we experience status quo bias, we perceive any shift from the ‘norm’ or ‘usual’ as negative or a loss, leading us to avoid any change. For HR and organisational development practitioners status quo bias can be a real challenge.
In an organisational setting, we often go through phases where change is seen as necessary (e.g. because of low performance or the need to adapt to a changing environment) and so our first and usual response might be to restructure and make people redundant. This ‘usual’ approach can be seen as the ‘tried and tested’ method and push us away from a new or even riskier alternative such as actually talking to staff and inviting creative or innovative ideas to help the organisation.
To avoid status quo bias, we need to be willing to acknowledge that ‘tried and tested’ isn’t always optimal and be open to new and sometimes riskier ways of doing things.