Taking control of your unconscious bias?

4 Minute Read

With attention now a scarce resource, we increasingly rely on algorithms to help us navigate the world. Only now are we beginning to experience the side-effects of these filter bubbles as our ability to see and understand the bigger picture is eroding.

Part 1: Six key unconscious biases when making decisions

Dr Norma Montague cites five key unconscious biases to be aware of when making decisions. We’ve added a sixth for good measure.

1. Certainty Bias

Sees incompetent people tending to overestimate their abilities and highly skilled at underestimating theirs. So if someone appears overconfident in their abilities, they probably are.

2. Short-on-time Bias

We are more likely to fall prey to biases when making quick decisions, with a tendency to want to rush to solve problems. Awareness is the first step to improving the quality of judgement, so slow down and consider all the issues before making big decisions.

3. Availability Bias

Our brains have a habit of filling in the gaps when there is not enough information. This can be problematic when we make decisions involving others, as their information or perspective may differ.

4. Anchor Bias

Anchoring is the tendency to give prominence to the first piece of information we receive on a subject. Car salespeople deliberately throw out an ‘anchor’ value, because they know most people will insufficiently make their offer from there. So when entering into a negotiation, it’s an advantage to be the first one to throw out the anchor, as the first items presented are the most likely to be remembered and influential in the proceedings.

5. Confirmation Bias

When we seek evidence that confirms beliefs or expectations, while ignoring information that challenges them. Pay attention and you will see it everywhere. Often this involves our egos, experience, (sometimes) fear, or talking with like-minded people. The higher up in any organisation, the more this type of ‘certainty’ becomes entrenched.

6. Social Influence Bias

Most of us are creatures of habit and we like to conform. For example, attempts to leverage social influence in sales can be seen when the words ‘most popular’ appear next to an option.


Part 2: Making the unconscious conscious

We all make judgements and behaviours toward others that we’re not aware of. Being honest with it helps us to accept it and do something about it. Here are a few tips that might help.

1. Understand your biases

Realising and accepting that we all have bias, we can keep an eye on it for ourselves and help others who work with us to do the same. There are a series of tests, created by Harvard Business School, available online for free. Since 2002, more than 4.5 million have already taken some version of the test online.

2. Being curious and expanding your mind

Having a secure sense of self means being more open to difference and to others. It’s the fragile egos that tend to be more closed and fearful, because they hate the idea of being seen as wrong. To be truly curious is the first start in rewiring our own prejudices. Writer Julia Cameron, in her best seller book The Artist’s Way, suggests that we all need to take ourselves out of our comfort zone from time to time. What better way of doing that is to take yourself out on a date each week and do something that you’ve never done before. Anything that takes your fancy, and challenges you with a new way of being.

3. Making more conscious decisions on your own

We know making decisions in this pressured world can be tricky and complex. We are short on time and often information, but it’s still vital that we challenge the reasons behind decisions we make and actively look for biases. First, try looking at a decision from a different point of view. Can you see both sides? Does it make you feel defensive? What does it trigger in you? What can another viewpoint offer? Accept the discomfort of unlearning and relearning. You might not change your position, but it might just give you greater insight and balance to your choices.

4. Making more conscious group decisions: six hats

Creativity expert Edward de Bono found a way to sidestep the typically unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making found in brainstorms, that demonstrated how we could work through problems constructively. Called ‘parallel thinking’, the method gets everyone in the group to think in one direction at the same time, thereby neutralising our biases before they can take hold. His book Six Thinking Hats demonstrates the six ways groups can work through issues or opportunities thinking into six distinct categories or ‘hats’. From devil’s advocate to optimist, using techniques such as these flushes out our ingrained ways of thinking and helps with buy-in, since the process is designed to be transparent and inclusive.

5. Making more conscious group decisions: develop a designer’s mindset

Often business people say they want to be more creative, but are biased against it. Design thinking has a naturally integrative approach that helps illuminate the complexity of business relationships: between people, organisations, and products, providing a holistic point of view. Taking on a designer’s mindset means the ability to cope with uncertainty, to see both the small and the big picture, and to understand the connection between ideas and quality of implementation. The practice of design is a great skill to have in our contemporary world.

This content was created by Guardian Labs as part of a partnership with HSBC, and published on 16th October 2017.