Although we tend to see ourselves as rational thinkers, we are all influenced by cognitive bias. This is not to say that all people are bigoted and closed minded. Instead, acknowledging this truth is a part of understanding the complex ways in which our brains organize and interpret the world we live in. In fact, The Verywell Mind article, “What is Cognitive Bias?” by Kendra Cherry explains that cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking that are “often a result of your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing.” Although simplified information processing is great for the occasional necessity to make a quick decision, it can cause us to overlook key information and to have distorted thinking. As Cherry explains, the same mechanism that helps us quickly detect a potential threat and flee to safety can send us down the path of falling for conspiracy theories! With a greater understanding of how the human brain simplifies information processing, it is easy to understand why people come to radically different conclusions about the same event, belief, or philosophy. The following will discuss cognitive biases that have the potential to prevent sound judgement and decision-making in the workplace and how to combat these with critical thinking.
The Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias
The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to the tendency to blame our own failures on external forces while blaming the failures of others on their internal qualities. Imagine going to a job interview under prepared. Although you are aware of your lack of preparedness, odds are that you will rationalize your own mistake. Maybe you have three small children at home who need constant attention, or maybe you are a full-time college student who is also working a full-time job to pay tuition. If so, you may lean towards those excuses as opposed to recognizing or acknowledging your own lack of preparation. Now imagine yourself interviewing a potential hire. The interviewee is fumbling over seemingly simple questions and seems rather unfamiliar with your organization. It is likely that your first inclination would be to assume the interviewee to be lazy or under qualified by nature rather than overwhelmed by temporary demands. Similarly, the Self-Serving Bias causes us to attribute our successes on internal qualities while blaming our failures on external forces. If you get hired for your dream position, you may believe that you got the job because you are intelligent, hardworking, and very qualified. If you do not get hired for your dream position, you may believe that too many candidates applied for the job or that the hiring manager doesn’t really know what is best for the organization.
Confirmation Bias and The Backfire Effect
Confirmation Bias refers to the tendency to only consider facts that confirm our current beliefs. In the Psychology Today article, “12 Common Biases That Affect How We Make Everyday Decisions,” Christopher Dwyer, Ph.D. writes, “We all favor ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know. Likewise, when we conduct research, we all suffer from trying to find sources that justify what we believe about the subject.” Imagine being a part of an organization’s marketing team. Everyone has been asked to come to today’s meeting with fresh ideas for the next campaign. During the meeting you notice that one team member feels very strongly about her ideas. She has come prepared with research about the target audience and insists that her plan is solid even when you and a couple other team members have evidence to back up, and favor, an alternative plan. As you provide evidence to support why your plan is best, she seems to tune you out and hold even more strongly to her own idea. Now, in addition to exhibiting Confirmation Bias, your coworker is exhibiting the Backfire Effect, or the tendency for people to strengthen their belief in an opinion after it has been challenged.
The False Consensus Effect
The False Consensus Effect occurs when people overestimate the extent to which other people agree with their actions, attitudes, and beliefs. This does not necessarily stem from a place of arrogance. One reason that people fall for the False Consensus Effect has to do with the tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. When you spend most of your time with people who share your core values and beliefs, it is hard to imagine that you may hold a minority opinion. Think of the role that elementary school teachers have in the social development of young children. Prior to school, children primarily learn about the world from their close relatives. Upon entering school, they may be quite surprised to realize that different classmates have different religious beliefs, belong to different races, or have parents who hate the presidential candidate that their parents are always complimenting. Just as teachers promote tolerance and unity in a diverse classroom, it is important for employers and employees to self-monitor their tendency to fall for the False Consensus Effect.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger Effect occurs when people with little knowledge on a matter believe they know much more. If you have ever been given “advice” by a well-meaning but clearly inexperienced coworker, you have probably experienced the frustration caused by those who fall for this cognitive bias. That said, it is important to realize that since everyone is influenced by cognitive bias, chances are that you have done the same thing to someone else!
The Halo Effect
Finally, the Halo Effect occurs when our initial impression of a person influences our overall impression. This cognitive bias has immense power in the hiring process because it causes our tendency to cling to first impressions. Unfortunately, the Halo Effect also plays into why looks really do matter. In the Verywell Mind article, “10 Cognitive Biases That Distort Your Thinking,” Kendra Cherry explains that “job applicants perceived as attractive and likable are also more liable to be viewed as competent, smart, and qualified for the job.” Just as it is important for potential hires to make an excellent first impression, hiring managers must consciously make the effort to look beyond surface qualities.
Combating Cognitive Bias
Although it is human nature to be influenced by cognitive bias, we must learn to engage in rational decision making and forming sound judgments. In the Forbes article, “Overcome Biases and Blind Spots in decision Making,” Melinda Fouts, Ph.D. provides three initial steps for reducing bias and increasing objective decision making.
Step One is to increase self-awareness. Fouts recommends focusing on your “reactions, responses and judgments throughout the day to different situations and individuals.” It is important to analyze the reason behind these reactions, responses, and judgments to determine whether they are actually warranted by objective information.
Step Two is to identify who and what makes you uncomfortable. Instead of simply accepting that someone or something makes us uncomfortable, it is important that we seek to understand the reason behind the discomfort. Is there a coworker that you have judged to be incompetent long ago? Is there objective evidence to support your on-going opinion?
Step Three is to educate yourself on different cognitive biases. Challenge yourself to identify specific biases that are influencing your conclusions. Does that “incompetent” coworker truly make more mistakes than you or anyone else, or are you being swayed by the Fundamental Attribution Error? Is there an attractive or funny coworker that makes just as many mistakes, and if so, are you falling for the Halo Effect?
Although it is hard to admit or to even identify the cognitive biases we use in everyday decision making, it is important to do so. There should be no shame in recognizing the fact that we all engage in faulty decision making because this is the result of our brain’s natural process of simplifying information processing. With greater insight into the causes of cognitive bias, it is important to realize when to override our brain’s simplification process and to engage in critical thinking. Doing so will allow for more success in life, at work, and in relationships because removing bias allows us to see the truth rather than our own construct of the truth. It helps us to be more tolerant of others, to let go of our own unfounded opinions, and to work together as peers, coworkers, and community members.