Working Better Together – 4. Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases affect how we make decisions. They often occur at an unconscious level in that we don’t notice that we have been influenced by a bias in a decision we make, however we can learn to be quite good at spotting them in others. Most people are affected by cognitive biases in the same way so the first thing to say is the fact that you are impacted by them is perfectly normal. Knowing that others are also, similarly, impacted by them opens a whole world of opportunity around how to play to these biases and how to mitigate their impact.

So what are we talking about here?

Is there someone in your workplace (or at home) who can never put a foot wrong? They’re the favourite. Always right. Even when they’re wrong. That’s the halo effect. When we see the good in someone or something we’re less ready to accept that they may at times make mistakes. The opposite of this is the horn effect where someone who is difficult to work with is always labelled as such, even when there are times that they are not difficult to work with. This links to confirmation bias. Imagine you are in a meeting where you’re discussing a new colleague engagement initiative. You conclude early in the meeting that you think it is a good idea (or that it’s not). From that point on, you will filter out all the things that go against your view and take notice of the things that support your view.  This can be why sometimes you can talk to a colleague who was in the same meeting but have completely different recollections of it.

If you’re a people leader, watch out for Fundamental Attribution Error which is when we attribute situational behaviour to a person’s fixed personality. E.g. a lazy person performs badly ‘because they are lazy’. ALWAYS ask questions to determine performance.

And for everyone, everywhere in everything you do, beware the planning fallacy which is thinking we can do things more quickly than we can. Do you know someone who says ‘sure I can do that, it’s a 5 minute job’. And have they ever actually done it in 5 minutes? How about when you put things in your diary to write a paper or plan a workshop. How often do you complete it in the time you allocated?

Or the bandwagon effect (also referred to as groupthink) where we are influenced by what others say – even if it’s wrong. The theory here is that we prioritise our desire to conform over our desire to be right. Imagine you’re with 8 other people in a workshop. The tutor asks each of you in turn the same question and each person answers out loud. The question is what is ‘what is the fourth month of the year’. You know the answer to be April. The eight people in the room answer aloud before you and each of them says May. When it comes to your turn you are more likely to say May than you are to say April. (In part because you will start to doubt yourself, in part because you may not wish to engage in debate about our response and in part because you want to conform).

How does all of this help me work better with others?

We can use what we know about biases to a) become more self-aware and notice when our decisions may be affected by them in order that we can sense check our responses and b) to help us become more effective and influential in our communication. Take a moment to think about whether any of the biases mentioned above have impacted your decisions recently. And what about the decisions of those close to you? Interestingly, another bias is the bias blind spot which is that we are far more likely to notice the impact of biases on other people than we are on ourselves!

Take the Anchoring bias – where we are over reliant on the first piece of information that is presented – and think about how this could be used in the workplace. If you are wanting to influence someone to take your preferred option, raise it first. Everything else will be anchored against that. Is the second option as good/valuable/customer focussed etc as yours? It will also be held in higher regard than if it were presented later (unfair but true). Similarly, if you’re going for an interview, being first up is no bad thing.

Also our preference for taking the easy option – when determining choices, make the one that you want people to take the easiest one to opt for. If it’s hard work, or even any work at all, the default option will be the one that most people adopt so make it the one that’s best for you and them.

Finally, availability bias is always worth bearing in mind. People will base their decision on the information that they can recall (probably mostly recent information too). If you are wanting to influence stakeholders to agree to a new approach to marketing and your business case refers to the success that one of your competitors has had doing a similar thing, raise awareness of the approach you want to adopt ahead of and outside of the decision point. Post information on social media, send links to case studies with a ‘saw this and thought of you’ type heading, mention the approach in conversations etc. Then when the stakeholders hear about it as part of your proposal it won’t be new information.

There are literally thousands of biases so google away as there are some cool infographics and research articles out there of you want to learn more. Working Better Together by Boost HR.