Our brains are lazy. When someone hears the word ‘shark,’ they’re likely to immediately think of violent attacks and may even start humming the theme from Jaws. In reality, the chances any of us will ever get harmed by a shark is virtually zero, however we’ve all seen enough movies and documentaries and heard horror stories that it’s the first thing our minds jump to on the subject.
This is exactly how unconscious biases happen. They are mental instincts which affect our snap decisions and judgements. These influence many harmless things like what we pick to buy, eat and what we say, but they can also lead to more troubling assumptions about race, gender, religion, age and countless other forms of prejudice. We only have to look at world events, both recent and historic, to see the issues such biases can cause.
There is no magic way to suddenly unlearn these systemic errors in thinking and untangle them from our thought processes. However, by making yourself aware of them, you can start becoming more mindful of how you and others make decisions.
Living life on autopilot
We experience two different types of thought processes: conscious and unconscious. Conscious thoughts are generally slower and deliberate. We consider multiple options, which takes more time and requires the brain to spend more energy.
Alternatively, there are subconscious thoughts – believed to control up to 95% of our actions. These rely on impulse, instinct and emotions. They are much easier and faster for the brain to process, using learned patterns of behaviour, which is where unconscious biases play their role.
Subconscious thoughts lead to mental shortcuts, known as heuristics. These are commonly used in marketing campaigns to trick your brain into being more positive about products. For example, your brain knows to trust a product you see online with more positive reviews than identical ones with fewer. Stores have even been known to play particular sounds or release smells to trigger positive feelings and evoke emotions.
In business these types of mental shortcuts lead to many unconscious biases, such as preferring to hire someone who looks more professional (however you would personally define that), or who speaks in a certain way. These impressions can happen immediately and shape your perspective throughout your relationship.
The Cognitive Bias Codex 2016 identified 188 forms of biases, which it put into four categories:
1. Too much information – When you have pre-existing beliefs on a topic, you’ll end up paying more attention to details that confirm what you already think.
2. Not enough meaning – If there isn’t enough information about your current situation, your brain fills in the blanks with preconceived ideas and expectations, often based on stereotypes.
3. How we remember – Our minds break down memories of events into their key elements, such as times, places and people involved. For example, we may end up linking two completely unrelated events that occurred at the same location or involved people you link together in some way.
4. The need to act fast – For quick decisions we all prefer having simple options and clear information, otherwise we’re forced to rely on the first thing our brain recalls.
Judging more accurately
A common theme running throughout this topic is known as ‘affinity bias,’ where we tend to prefer and warm up to people quicker if they remind us of ourselves in some form. It may even be so subtle that we don’t notice it.
We can also be tricked by an ‘anchoring effect,’ which impacts our perception, showing how easily our minds are tricked into taking a particular stance on a subject. There is a subtle but important difference between saying “After a successful year, profits rose by almost 10%” and saying, “Unfortunately profits only rose by less than 10%.” These two sentences say the same thing and impart the same information but put very different ideas and judgements into the minds of the audience.
This is a common technique used in sales to frame a price. For example, in experiments where someone is asked to estimate the price of a car, when asked “do you think it’s more or less than £20,000?” they will estimate a higher price than asked if it’s more or less than £5,000.
Past experience of a person, or a group you associate them with, will act as an anchor point for how you think about them. This is often known as the Halo and Horns Effect.
If you consider someone to have a ‘halo,’ you’re more positive about them and are more likely to judge them favourably, forgive them quicker, trust them more and be prepared to help them. Conversely, you tend to have negative feelings about someone with ‘horns,’ trying to avoid spending time with them and remembering their mistakes over their successes and expecting results rather than trusting promises. Which category someone finds themselves in will often be based on first impressions and preconceived notions of their character – usually heavily influenced by unconscious biases.
In extreme examples of this, a person with biases against a particular group of people will focus more on things they struggle with rather than their countless other abilities. Additionally, one slip up can act as an anchor point for a person’s expectations of that entire group, creating a vicious cycle of problematic biases.
Realistic expectations of ourselves
As well as affecting how we perceive and judge others, we all have unconscious biases of ourselves and our own abilities. Being honest about what we can achieve is crucial for making accurate predictions and estimates at work.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes people believe they are smarter and more capable than they actually are. This causes issues with setting expectations for their achievements and workloads, but causes even more issues when it leads them to underestimate the genuine skills and expertise of others. Similarly, ‘optimism bias’ is the assumption that everything will go perfectly to plan, and the ‘planning fallacy’ underestimates the time, costs and risks of a project. Together, these cognitive biases lead to severe mismanagement of people and resources.
A classic example of these in action was the building of the Sydney Opera House. The designers estimated it would be built by 1963 and cost $7 million. In fact, it finally opened ten years late and cost a whopping $102 million. It’s incredibly important to make accurate judgements based on logic and evidence rather than hope, assumptions and over-confidence.
How to avoid being influenced by biases
It seems simple, but you need to admit there’s a problem before you can move forward. Understanding that cognitive biases exist and being aware and mindful of how they can distort your thought processes, decision making and world view will begin to lessen their impact.
In her 2015 book, ‘The Three Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias,’ Sondra Thiederman outlines three steps to take. The first is ‘Watch’ out for your own thoughts, experiences and actions in order to identify which biases impact your behaviour. Secondly, ‘Think’ about ways to weaken the control problematic biases have over you. Ask yourself questions and be ready to challenge your reasoning – are you acting on facts or is it more emotion based? Be prepared to listen to other voices and opinions too. And thirdly, ‘Act’ deliberately and proactively to remove unconscious biases. You must allow yourself to become more open minded by increasing your opportunities to interact with a more diverse group of people, fostering understanding and acceptance.
Once you begin the process of recognising and overcoming your own biases, you will start seeing it in others as well. You should be prepared to keep your eyes open and confront it when you can. By its very nature, these biases are ‘unconscious’ and very rarely acted upon with any malicious intent, yet they can have many negative repercussions. When we all work together to eliminate biases, we can create a much more open, fairer and respectful culture in our workplaces and in the wider world.
To learn more about Unconscious Bias, make sure you check out our Business Psychology learning solutions.