Cognitive biases: how do they impact behaviour and how can we work with them instead of against them?

Published by Richenda Sabine on

woman's profile with abstract shapes respresenting thoughts superimposed on top

Cognitive biases: how do they impact behaviour and how can we work with them instead of against them?

FACT: We all have cognitive biases. This is because the human brain takes in so much information that it has had to create strategies and shortcuts to simplify the world and the data it collects. In the workplace, these biases impact our decision-making, how we interact with, recognise and reward people. Bias-influenced assumptions aren’t evidence-based and are often incorrect, and acting on them can produce unfair outcomes or terrible failures. In our society, unconscious bias perpetuates inequalities in housing, education, healthcare, criminal justice, and other critical areas. 

How biased are you? 

In the early 1970s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced the term ‘cognitive bias’ to describe our systematic but essentially flawed patterns of responses to judgement and decision making. In 1998, a study carried out at the University of Washington and Yale analysed what was behind people’s biases and measured the root cause. Their conclusion: 90-95% of people have biases.

woman's profile with abstract shapes respresenting thoughts superimposed on top

The unconscious blind spot.

If a bias is unconscious, you don’t realise it exists and this can cause us to (unintentionally) behave in negative ways that don’t align with our true values. One of the worst consequences of unconscious bias is the tendency to believe our brain’s assumptions and act on them, regardless of their merit.

Think of driving your car down the motorway. You want to change lane, so you indicate and check all your mirrors. It’s all clear; you start to make your way over to the next lane. A car horn blasts, you swerve back into your lane, realising you’ve just missed crashing into another car — one you didn’t see because it was in your blind spot.

Just like when we’re driving and don’t see what’s in another lane, unconscious bias is a blind spot that can have fatal consequences because you don’t know it’s there.

What are the different types of biases? 

One of the most common cognitive biases is ‘confirmation bias’. This is when a person looks for and interprets information (e.g., news stories, statistics, or the opinions of others) that backs up an assumption or theory they already have.

In the workplace, recurring costs of bias include disengaged staff, employees who feel the need to hide the most self-valued aspects of who they are, and customers, staff, or students who feel misunderstood or disrespected.

Did you know that there are more than 150 identified unconscious biases? Here are a few of the most common:

  • Affinity bias.We like people who are most like us. This can be destructive in the workplace: A manager may take time to chat with an employee who went to the same college and then start talking about upcoming opportunities. But someone who attended a different school might not get this informal, yet important, face to face.
  • Performance bias. We judge the ‘in group’ on potential but judge the ‘out group’ on performance. A male candidate, for example, may be considered for a new job because he has potential. But if a female candidate wants to be considered, she’d have to demonstrate she’s performed a similar job before. This is also known as gender bias.
  • Confirmation bias.We are happy to agree with information that already matches our current belief. A leader who is deciding whether to acquire a company might highlight the parts in the financial report that support the inclination to buy, while dismissing the points that suggest caution.
  • Halo effect.This is the tendency to allow a positive impression on someone to outweigh other judgements of them. For example, you pass an attractive stranger on the street. This may lead you to unconsciously determine that this person must also be smart and/or successful, even though you don’t know anything about them.
zoomed out view of lots of people, connected in groups

Managing unconscious bias.

One way to uncover unconscious biases is to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) by Harvard University. This test helps you to see where an unconscious bias may be held. You can test for bias in areas such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation to discover whether you have a slight, moderate, or strong bias in specific areas.

Be aware: The results may surprise you with indications of biases of which you were oblivious.

Remember: It isn’t that having an unconscious bias is terrible; it’s about not recognising the bias and making decisions with negative consequences.

Once you identify an unconscious bias, it’s important to challenge it. Using the earlier mentioned biases as examples, consider if that bias is influencing your behaviour. Are you spending more time with team members who have a similar background to yours? Are you giving everyone on your team the same information through formal and informal channels? Are you using the same criteria for considering all candidates for a new position? Are you open to new information even if it runs counter to your preference?

To become aware of your unconscious biases, start by educating yourself. Paying attention to your thoughts and examining your beliefs can help you identify the assumptions you currently hold. For example, do you believe that people will always speak up when they disagree? Here are some tools for tackling unconscious bias: 

  1. Don’t assume that what you think is biased is the same for everyone.
  2. Have open and transparent conversations around equality and bias with your colleagues.
  3. Challenge gender-based decisions.
  4. Don’t assume younger colleagues aren’t as capable, or older colleagues are past it.
  5. Call out wrong behaviour and lead by example.
  6. Take time to seek support if you’re making decisions based on bias.
  7. Learn about tools, techniques, and strategies to champion workplace equality.

The good news is… 

…unconscious biases are not always unhelpful — they distil information overload into digestible chunks. Our ancestors’ unconscious biases triggered their fight or flight response, which was essential in encounters with wild animals or navigating natural disasters. Today our unconscious bias helps in other less life-threatening, but still significant ways.

A BAD example.

An increasing amount of research demonstrates that simply learning about unconscious bias is not enough to make meaningful changes in employee environment, retention of diverse personnel, or perceptions of unconscious bias. Individuals must consciously manage the application of bias with a high level of cultural intelligence.

We recently created a digital learning experience on unconscious bias for a major bank, tapping into the audience using relatable scenarios to challenge their biases in a safe environment. By applying our behavioural insights, we were able to create an immersive learning experience to enable behaviour change.

Be conscious of your unconscious biases.

It may be impossible to eliminate biases, but by understanding and identifying them, you can be more certain that the decisions you make are not taking place in a blind spot.

Consider this quote from Thais Compoint, CEO and Founder of Déclic International, an organisation specialising in inclusion & diversity training: “Unconscious bias is like jealousy: nobody likes to admit it, and often we’re unaware of it.”

If you’d like to know more about how you can manage unconscious bias in your organisation contact our friendly Behavioural Scientists here at BAD.