There are more cognitive biases than most psychologists could name. Being aware that we all have them and being able to identify and mitigate some of the most common can help us to become better leaders.
Psychologists and economists have been identifying, describing and categorising a range of cognitive biases for a number of years. We have to come to terms with the fact that, humans being what we are, there are a lot of them. Some can even sound quite fun, like the IKEA effect, by which we’re likely to place a higher value on objects we’ve had a hand in creating. And plenty of us will feel an affiliation with the Google effect, a form of digital amnesia which means we tend to forget information we know we can easily look up online.
But there is, of course, a more serious side to acknowledging and mitigating biases which threaten to get in the way of our relationships and performance, whether that’s challenging the blind spots of the Dunning-Kruger effect or understanding the diversity-blighting implications of status quo bias. We all need a healthy dose of self-awareness, reflection and Daniel Kahneman-style System 2 thinking to navigate the cognitive bias minefield.
To help us make a start, here are 10 cognitive biases we all might consider more closely as we navigate the bias minefield:
1. Authority bias
“But my boss thinks we should do this…”
People in positions of authority are probably more experienced than most of us, but that doesn’t mean they know it all. Beware the tendency to believe, and to be more influenced by, the opinions of an authority figure. They might not be as well informed – or as objective – as you think.
2. Bandwagon effect
“Well, if the ops team are on board, that’s good enough for me…”
Closely related to groupthink or herd behaviour, the bandwagon effect leads us to do or believe things because a large enough group of other people act or believe the same. But the weight of numbers could still be leading us astray. Just because others are set on a course of action, it doesn’t mean that it’s right.
3. Confirmation bias
“If the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts”*
We know what we like, don’t we? Read the newspaper we agree with? Follow like-minded people on Twitter? But we have to guard against that becoming a tendency to look for, interpret, listen to and remember only that information and those beliefs that confirm our own preconceptions. Instead, make a point of considering opposing views, look at the whole picture and try to consider facts as objectively as possible.
(*courtesy of Albert Einstein)
4. Fundamental attribution error
“That’s typical of someone like that; I knew I should never have promoted him…”
One of your people is late with a monthly report again. How do you react? Do you start railing against them personally or do you consider external factors, such as workload, that might have got in the way of performance? This tendency to blame others personally when things go wrong, instead of looking more objectively at the situation or context, is fundamental attribution error. It’s tricky, because we can often blame or judge someone based on a stereotype or a perceived personality flaw. Not a good look. Think carefully when judging others’ performance and take situational factors into account too.
5. Halo effect
“Surely not? He’s such a good…”
When we admire something about someone – their smarts, their sales nous, their way with words – it’s hard not to let that spill over into other personality areas. That’s the halo effect. It’s often associated with the physical attractiveness stereotype, when we find it hard to believe that such a lovely looking person could ever do anything wrong or bad. But it’s just as toxic when we allow the way we feel about a person’s ability in one area to blind us to the fact that they might not be the all-rounder we think they are.
Note, too, that this also works in reverse: just because we don’t admire one thing about a person, doesn’t mean they’re all bad.
6. Negativity bias/effect
“I’ll never live that down…”
We’ve all had those moments we’d rather forget, but, somehow, we can’t get them out of our minds. They creep up on us at inconvenient moments and may even keep us awake at night. That’s negativity bias, the phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories. We need to remember that we all make mistakes or have bad things happen to us. The chances are that it’s a much bigger deal for ourselves than for anyone else. We need to embrace this vulnerability and develop the resilience to move on and focus on the positive.
7. Not invented here
“Hmm. I’m not sure. We’ve never taken advice from them before…”
Being proud to be part of a group or team is great. There’s nothing like that feeling that we’re all working together seamlessly and to optimum effect. We’re the best. Invincible. Take care though; ‘not invented here’ bias might make you blind to products, research, standards, or knowledge developed outside your group. A good idea is a good idea, wherever it comes from. Be generous and open minded when it comes to where those ideas might come from.
8. Ostrich effect
“It can’t be that bad. Let’s just wait and see…”
When things start going wrong, it’s natural for us to follow our natural instincts to run a mile and hope for the best. Ignoring an obviously negative situation is called the ostrich effect. The bad news is that burying your head in the sand is just about guaranteed to make a bad situation worse. And even if the ostriches stay put, the chickens will always come home to roost. Always. Face up to problems rather than avoiding them.
9. Planning fallacy
“How can it be the end of the day already?”
It is a truth not universally acknowledged that tasks always take longer than we think. That’s planning fallacy, our tendency consistently to underestimate task-completion times. Think about conducting a time audit for typical week to see how you really spend your time – and use that to improve your scheduling for routine and similar tasks in future.
10. Self-serving bias
“It wasn’t my fault. Dave didn’t send me the spreadsheets in time…”
We’re all proud of our achievements. We should - rightly - own them. But not to the extent that we ignore our failures. Self-serving bias does just that: when something good happens, we take the credit; when something bad happens, we blame it on external factors. In a sense, this bias is the exact opposite of the fundamental attribution error above. Keep an open mind and work on owning those learning experiences too.
And, for luck, let’s consider one more bias, called blind spot bias. It’s tendency to see ourselves as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in ourselves.
Time to be honest with ourselves, everyone.
One final thought. One of the best ways to tackle our biases is to seek out and spend time with people whose opinions, experiences and values might differ from ours. Being open to, and reflecting on, different worldviews is a powerful way to avoid the traps of common cognitive biases.
But of course, if you’re prone to falling victim to the confirmation bias, that’s exactly what you’d have expected us to say.
Test your knowledge
- Give an example of the planning fallacy.
- Identify two ways to mitigate confirmation bias.
What does it mean for you?
- Reflect on a situation where you were guilty of the fundamental attribution error. What additional situational factors could you have taken into account? How might that have changed how you reacted to your colleague?
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