Bias - what it is and how to manage yours

May 23, 2022

Written by 
Harriet Griffiths

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The world is a highly complex place. If we had to interpret and consider all the information in our environment to make a decision, it would take us hours to make even the simplest choices, like what sandwich to buy for lunch, or what to wear. Therefore, sometimes it is necessary for us to rely on mental shortcuts to navigate through the world more quickly. These mental shortcuts are known as heuristics, and are an evolutionary adaptation that served us when our survival was under threat years ago. However, although these heuristics allow us to navigate through the complexity of the world, they can also lead to undesired assumptions and judgments and affect the decisions we make. We are constantly under the influence of these cognitive biases.

A close look at bias

There are over 200 cognitive biases that can cause us to think and act irrationally and there are many layers of explanation for these different biases but there are two common themes that can explain why bias occurs:

Bias due to lack of perspective:

Often, we rely too heavily on our own point of view when making decisions and attribute our own beliefs, perspectives and opinions to others, assuming that everyone thinks the same as us (egocentric bias).

An example of this is the spotlight effect, when we think we know what other people are thinking. A consequence of this is that we can overestimate how much others are paying attention to our appearance or behaviour.

Another example is confirmation bias, whereby we interpret things in a way that confirms our opinions, instead of considering how these things might be viewed from another perspective that doesn’t support our view.

Bias as a function to protect self esteem:

Another explanation for bias is as a function to protect our self-esteem. For example, self-serving bias involves the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favourable manner that enhances or preserves our sense of self. This means we will attribute our successes to be the direct result of our character and abilities, rather than luck or other situational factors. Equally, self-serving bias leads us to assign blame for our failures on external rather than internal causes (Greenberg, 1991).

Moreover, social desirability bias refers to the tendency of people to deny socially undesirable traits or qualities and to admit socially desirable ones. The function of this bias is to ensure we fit in and avoid embarrassment –protecting our self-image and esteem.

Group membership provides us with a sense of social identity and self-esteem, however, this can lead to in-group favouritism and out-group hostility. For example, in order to protect our self-esteem and that of the group, we will favour our group and focus on the positive aspects of it, whilst expressing anger or upset if our group membership is criticised. Even if the group we are part of is trivial, the same forces apply. This can also lead us to assume/see other groups (out-groups) as all the same (homogeneity effect).

So, if bias is everywhere, and is, to a degree, hardwired into our brains, the question we are asking is: what can we do to minimise any negative impacts of bias?   We need to facilitate a shift in our thinking, from a fixed to a growth mindset.

We can facilitate this shift by priming ourselves into a flexibility mindset. A flexibility mindset can be characterised as a more divergent way of thinking, which involves the switching between broad cognitive categories, allowing consideration of alternatives (DeDruetal., 2011).

Curiosity overwhelms ego

One way we can elicit a more flexible cognitive mindset is through the restructuring of a situation to make sense of it, rather than being fixated on one possible outcome, we can be curious and think about it differently. For example,  you see a co-worker's children come into the room on a Zoom call. Your first reaction might be that it’s not very usual for that to happen, but being curious will lead to realise that it’s much more commonplace as more of us work from home.  

Learning from the choices not made

Another way to stimulate a flexibility mindset is through the mental simulation of alternative situations. For example, “If only I had set my alarm clock at a higher volume, I would have woken up on time”. The counterfactual thoughts (“what if….?”, “If only….”or “if only I had NOT done X”), requires us to consciously consider other perspectives of a situation and facilitates a more flexible processing style and way of thinking.

Connecting to your potential

Connecting with our own intuition, we often forget that we hold all the answers ourselves. If we look inwards and draw on past instances when we have been creative (in whatever context), these same flexible processing strategies will be activated and carried over to the current situation and beyond.

Doing new things in a powerful way

If you want something to be different, you have to be motivated to go through some changes. This motivational state in itself has been shown to facilitate the consideration of alternatives and elicit a more flexible mindset.

Unleash your potential

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