The human brain is the most powerful computer in existence: It has between 80 and 100 billion nerve cells; it processes at least, if not more than, 70,000 thoughts a day; and it took a supercomputer 40 minutes to map the connections a brain makes in a single minute.
But despite this peak level of intelligence and sophistication, it can make us do some pretty silly things. After all, we are only human, and that means we are subject to cognitive biases, those annoying glitches in our thinking that cause us to make questionable decisions and stop us from being rational.
In most cases, they are harmless, and some scientists suggest this type of bias might have given us an evolutionary advantage. The logical part of our mind is great at solving problems, but it’s slow, requires a lot of energy and can be lazy – not so great when you have to make quick decisions to avoid predators or other dangers. However, we don’t encounter many of the situations our brains are evolved to deal with anymore, which means we can still make snap judgements based on erroneous information.
Much of past business and economic thought centred on humans as rational actors, but Nobel-prize winning economist and psychologist Dr Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky blew this idea out of the water in 2002 when they introduced cognitive biases. According to Kahneman, “If we think that we have reasons for what we believe, that is often a mistake. Our beliefs and our wishes and our hopes are not always anchored in reasons.” In the time since they released their first findings, the number of cognitive biases have mushroomed, a testament to how pervasive and ingrained they are as bits of our subconscious.
When cognitive biases influence individuals, real problems can arise. But when cognitive biases impact a business, problems can grow exponentially worse. Here are 10 common cognitive biases that impact our work lives:
- Anchoring bias: Also known as the relativity trap, we are over-reliant on the first pieces of information we hear. People tend to compare and contrast only a limited set of variables. Imagine a salary negotiation, for example. The first party to list a number establishes a range of possibilities in each other’s minds. The other party will then feel compelled to list a similar one, and both will come to some conclusion that’s in between the two – we gravitate towards a middle that’s relative.
- Bandwagon effect: This is a powerful form of groupthink where the probability of one person accepting a belief or concept increases based on the number of people who hold that belief. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why behaviours can propagate within an organisation, resulting in conformity and lack of progress.
- Confirmation bias: We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s an innate response to avoid things that make us uncomfortable or insecure about our views. We will ignore or dismiss opinions that don’t confirm what we already think and feel, and instead focus on views that reinforce our opinions – not a great way to keep an open mind.
- Clustering illusion: For anyone who has ever panicked during a multiple choice test after getting five Cs in a row, this is a familiar feeling. We ascribe meaning to random patterns, either thinking that the repetition means we’ve made an error, or that a string of wins based on the same criteria indicates future success.
- Ostrich effect: It’s exactly what it sounds like – sticking your head in the sand and hoping that any negative or bad information will float right by. For example, research suggests that investors check stock prices less frequently when markets are bad. Similarly, an employee might avoid opening emails from a co-worker or manager when they are expecting bad news.
- Availability heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them. For example, a co-worker might fight against a workplace ban on smoking because their great-grandparent smoked like a chimney and lived to the ripe old age of 100.
- Stereotyping: It sounds obvious, but basing decisions on stereotypes is bad for business. A stereotype is any expectation about the qualities and traits of a person or group of people without knowing them beforehand. When meeting clients, colleagues or investors, relying on preconceived notions about who they are or what they’re like doesn’t do anybody any favours.
- Empathy gap: No matter the situation, empathy is never a bad quality to possess. However, it’s hard to understand the feelings of someone who is sad when you are happy, or experiencing any particular emotion when you are not. As HR professionals, empathy is something to cultivate. It’s fundamental to the profession, and an inability to recognise when empathy is lacking is detrimental.
- The Galatea effect: In greek mythology, Galatea was the name Pygmalion gave to his statue that the gods brought to life. In business, it’s less to do with masonry and divine intervention and more to do with self-fulfilling prophecy. Essentially, it means that an individual’s feelings about and expectations of one’s ability play a hand in performance – something for managers to keep in mind.
- Cognitive blind spots: Yes, failure to recognise cognitive bias is its own cognitive bias. One study from Stanford University in the US found that people rate themselves as ‘better than average’ when it comes to recognising their own biases, even after they were told this bias exists. We are also quick to point out the cognitive biases in others and ignore our own shortcomings.
Now that we’ve outlined some common cognitive weaknesses, how do we counteract them?
- Awareness is key to reducing the influence of cognitive biases on decision-making. Simply knowing that cognitive biases exist and can distort your thinking will help lessen their impact.
- Collaboration may be the most effective tool for mitigating cognitive biases. Quite simply, it is easier to see biases in others than in yourself. Find someone you trust and share the pain points without coming to blows.
- Inquiry is fundamental; ask the right questions of yourself and others that will shed light on the presence of biases and on the best decisions that avoid their trap.
- When you establish a disciplined and consistent framework and process for making decisions, you increase your chances of catching cognitive biases before they hijack your decision making.
Kahneman also recommends asking yourself three questions to minimise the impact of cognitive bias on decision-making:
- Is there any reason to suspect someone making a recommendation of biases based on self-interest, overconfidence or attachment to past experiences?
- Have the people making the recommendation fallen in love with it?
- Was there groupthink or were there dissenting opinions within the decision-making team? This question can be mitigated before the decision-making process begins by collecting a team of people who will proactively offer opposing viewpoints and challenge the conventional wisdom of the group.