Unconscious Biases Affect Our Decisions

Tuesday, March 3 2015

Unconscious biases are those deeply, but unwittingly held beliefs, assumptions, or interpretations which influence our decisions and actions. These patterns develop over time and operate without our conscious consideration. They can be very useful to our survival, enabling us to quickly interpret and react to dangerous situations. However, from a business perspective they can be negative and costly.

Unconscious biases start to develop when we are very young. I have had the pleasure of watching my 4 year old grandson refuse to eat food that he has never tried before, saying “I don’t like that.” That is his unconscious bias that all new foods taste nasty, because once he tried a new food and didn’t like it. He has to choose to try a new food; fortunately, when he does, he usually likes it.

So what if, like my grandson, we base all decisions on one experience and refuse to look at things from a different perspective. It sounds ridiculous; yet it happens all the time in business. Someone makes a mistake and suddenly they are classified as not a good employee. If that had happened to you when you were starting out in a career, would you have reached your current role?

Consider the illustration of two tables below. This is a cognitive exercise developed by Roger Shepard, an Oxford and Sanford Professor: 

Can you tell which top is bigger? You would probably say the one on the left is longer and narrower. Yet, if you cut out both shapes you would find that they are the same size and shape. If we have no reason to believe there is an illusion occurring we accept what we perceive as fact.

Unconscious biases work in the same way. We are not aware of our biases and take what we see as fact. We see through our own lens, and what we believe may not be correct. Consider the belief that introverts can’t be good leaders. It is not true and yet many organizations choose to select the competitive, assertive extrovert, who fits the leadership image. But, it doesn’t mean they are a better leader. It is an unconscious bias held by the person selecting the next leader that extrovert is better. It is one of the reasons leaders make errors in judgement when hiring, promoting, or developing people within the organization.

Accept that we all have biases. Strive to become aware of what your own are. Be willing to change, and like my grandson accept that not all new foods are yucky.