Bias Balance

by Josh Cowen

“There are two sides to every story.” We’ve heard that statement over and over again, but have we ever really thought about it? Have we considered how our bias towards one idea or the other affects our work?’s definition of bias is: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. That prejudice works its way into our decision making, which, in turn, can cause us to make poor decisions. And those poor decisions affect our bottom line.

Consider this: You are tasked to find a software product to solve your company’s project management issues. From past jobs, you have experience working with a multitude of different software options. There were a few that you fell in love with and felt like you were in heaven. There were some that were middle-of-the-road, and some that you are convinced were from the devil.

Now you’re at a new job, and you have to decide which software options are right for your company. You naturally gravitate towards the heavenly software that you were in love with at your previous job (and you will most likely avoid the devil software), so you implement it at your new company. Unfortunately, you later realize that the software, although awesome, doesn’t quite fit the needs of your company. So now you have to find a better option, which will now cost you more time and money.

This scenario happens far too often, whether it’s implementing new software, bringing a new product to market, hiring personnel, etc. This is an example of what psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky call Psychological Bias. In their 1982 book, Judgment Under Uncertainty, they define it as “the tendency to make decisions or take action in an illogical way.”

There are 5 common Psychological Biases that affect our decision-making:

Confirmation Bias: This is when you pursue information that supports your view and reject ideas that do not.

Anchoring: Here you jump to conclusions. You make a decision way too early instead of vetting out enough possibilities.

Overconfidence Bias: You rely too much on your own knowledge and opinions of the subject without considering other sources.

Gambler’s Fallacy: You rely on past experiences to repeat themselves. Think of a coin toss — it’s always a 50/50 chance, but the more heads you have in a row, the more you expect heads will come up.

Fundamental Attribution Error: This one is a little different — you blame others for things that go wrong instead of looking objectively at the situation. You might place blame on someone based on a stereotype or even just something you don’t like about them.

In the scenario from earlier, we can see the Overconfidence Bias: You relied on your own knowledge / experience / feelings of the “heavenly” software to influence you to implement software that did not fit your current situation at the new company. We also see the Gambler’s Fallacy: past experiences with the heavenly software led you to conclude it would work again.

Out of Balance
It could be quite easy to be overwhelmed by this news, but it might help to know that we are all in the same boat. Almost everyone is biased based on positive and negative experiences. Think about your irrational fears for a moment. Maybe you fear sharks because you saw Jaws as a kid. Or perhaps you fear the dentist because you watched Seinfeld or had a bad root canal early in life. Similarly, you have a fear of software X because it didn’t work well 10 years ago at the last company and so you think it will not work well now.

What about the positive experiences? Surely they can’t lead you wrong (except when they can). For example: you think you’re a great singer, but when you try out for American Idol, you get really negative feedback from their judges. Or you think you’re really great at directions and don’t need the GPS, and you end up getting completely lost. Or at work, you know you did all the research on that software years ago, so that must be the best option for your new company. But you never actually do research based on current software. Even the positive biases can lead us to a wrong decision.

All these biases that we form directly affect how and why we make decisions and solve problems. If we make decisions and come up with solutions based on our biases, we most likely will not come to the best conclusion or solution. We have to get outside of these biases to do a better job.

Overcoming Biases
So how do we do that?

  1. We have to understand what our biases are and how they are formed in order to overcome them. Do some soul-searching and think about how your past experiences have probably caused you to have biases in a particular direction about certain things.
  2. Do not make decisions on your own. This one is pretty self-explanatory, but when we make decision or come up with solutions alone, it’s very easy to have any number of these Psychological Biases.
  3. Look at a wide variety of sources. Looking outside yourself and your small set of sources will help you avoid the Confirmation Bias.
  4. Allow enough time. Time will help avoid Anchoring and will create the space needed to come to a good solution or conclusion.
  5. Have an open mind. Actively listen to other opinions and thoughts around you. Without input from other sources, it’s easy to have an Overconfidence Bias.
  6. Look at an issue from multiple angles. Looking at trends from other perspectives, rather than chronologically, will help you avoid the Gambler’s Fallacy.
  7. Develop Empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others will help you avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error and always looking for people to blame.

If you are aware that these Psychological Biases exist in all of us and that they can really hinder us from finding the best solution, you will be on your way to making more unbiased and fair decisions. Try to do your research, ask others for options (and actually listen to them), be empathetic and stay open-minded. Not only will you improve in your personal life, your business will get better as well.