Our brain assumes that all individuals in the same category act in a similar way. So it automatically takes into account information that corresponds to and reinforces this assumption, and rejects information that contradicts it.
For example, if you have a negative preconception of young people and think they are lazy and unexperienced, you might be tempted to interrupt them in meetings, avoid giving them projects where they would need to show initiative, and strip them of responsibilities. They may then experience a number of negative judgements about themselves and feel isolated and misunderstood, in a psychologically unsafe environment. As a result, these individuals will draw back and engage less with their work, which will, in your eyes, corroborate the expectations you have of young people. If they don’t participate, you will take that as confirmation that they are lazy and unexperienced, since they have nothing to say and do not contribute to the group.
On the other hand, if you have a positive preconception of a man, for example, you are likely to approach him with more warmth, to which he will also respond with warmth, establishing that the two of you will in the future get to know each other and develop a good relationship.
These two examples show how the actions and behavior that you adopt for categories of people, influenced by your cognitive biases, shape the end result. Since you assumed that young people were lazy and unexperienced, you acted in a way that excluded them from decision-making or positions of responsibility, thereby reconstructing the initial image you had of them.
It’s important to remember that cognitive biases help us:
- Avoid drowning in too much information;
- Make sense of the information we have, by filling in the gaps and forming an overview or thought;
- Speed up the memory process by holding onto information our brain categorizes as important;
- Quickly interpret a massive amount of information.
Specific cognitive biases and advice for overcoming them
Don’t make assumptions
Firstly, there are many types of cognitive biases, and they vary depending on the individual and the context.
You shouldn’t feel embarrassed, because we all have cognitive biases. The brain is brilliant at sticking labels on what it sees, and it classifies information so quickly that we’re not even aware of it. We may even think we are being objective, when in reality we have been influenced by our brain taking shortcuts to process information as rapidly as possible.
Here are a few types of cognitive bias:
1. Affinity bias
Affinity bias means unconsciously preferring people who have things in common with you or with your loved ones. Your brain considers them to be familiar, or assumes you will find common ground with them. In addition, certain protection mechanisms can influence and reinforce tendencies to surround ourselves with people who we think are like us. For example, you might prefer a woman who went to the same college as you over other candidates for the same job.
It may be worth following Google’s recent example to move away from the “culture fit” hiring model often found in Silicon Valley in favor of a “culture add” approach to foster a more diverse and inclusive climate within the company. But, as with any change, it is important for companies to communicate on this so that employees are aware of the improvements being made to the hiring process (which Google didn’t do, and was initially criticized for, despite its positive initiative to combat biases in the hiring process).
2. Confirmation bias
This refers to the tendency to look for any evidence or observations that support and strengthen our initial beliefs, whether they are fair or not. In addition, information that contradicts our preconceptions is systematically ignored.
3. Name bias
This means judging a person based on their name and perceived background.
To offset this, you can hide the demographics of job candidates from their resume, such as their name, gender, address and educational background, to be sure that they are selected purely on the basis of their hard skills, soft skills and their personality and not on their perceived background.
4. Conformity bias
Conformity bias is when we copy the behavior of others without questioning their actions. Your point of view can be influenced by that of another person or group of people, even if it was quite different beforehand. In this way, people may display discriminatory behavior within one group but act differently in another. Take a step back if you hear comments like “that’s how everybody does things here” or if you see that this kind of dynamic dominates in your team or company. Similarly, conformity bias can reinforce habits, as we think, “We have always done it that way in the company and it’s never been a problem, so why change now?”
In the hiring process, conformity bias can be reduced by having several people, preferably from different backgrounds, interview the candidate.
Don’t be afraid to express your own thoughts and opinions — you might have noticed something positive about the candidate that others didn’t see.
Another tip: if you notice in meetings that some people tend to follow what others say and refrain from giving their own viewpoint, it could be useful to collect everyone’s opinion anonymously for certain projects.
5. Self-serving bias
This is the tendency to ascribe success to your own qualities (skills and personality) but attribute failure to external factors — and vice versa for others. When someone else succeeds, we are more tempted to think it was luck or that they received help, and if they fail, we think that must be because they lack the right skills or personal qualities.
During the hiring process, take a step back, because self-serving bias could affect the way you view a candidate’s performance. You could find yourself tempted to focus on their failures and minimize their accomplishments, which could lead to you missing out on a great candidate.
6. Beauty bias
This often affects women in a negative way. Individuals seen as attractive may receive favors and preferential treatment compared to other people. To counteract this kind of mechanism, for example, interviewers should be aware of it and make sure to focus on candidates’ work experience, soft skills, hard skills, and personality, rather than physical appearance.
Never judge a book by its cover!
7. Gender bias
Gender bias means preferring someone based on their gender and assuming that one gender is better than another. For example, it is vital to use neutral language in job advertisements so as not to imply that the posting is aimed at one gender in particular.
8. Halo effect
A halo effect is the tendency to put someone on a pedestal or think of them in a positive light simply because we have heard something impressive about them or about the group in which we have unconsciously categorized them. Conversely, it can also mean having a negative impression of someone after hearing something unfavorable about them or about the group in which, unbeknownst to them, they have been categorized. In this way, people from minority backgrounds may be unfairly discriminated against during the hiring process because the media has reported much more on crimes committed by one or more individuals from the minority in question than on positive actions by the same group.
It’s a good idea to self-reflect on this and ask yourself why you have a positive or negative impression of a certain person, and what evidence you have about them to support this point of view. Consider whether your perception might be influenced by stereotypes based on gender, race, disability, etc.
9. Contrast effect
This comes about when we assess several similar people or situations and compare them to each other rather than looking at each one independently based on its own merits. This can have the adverse effect of judging job candidates particularly harshly. In this case, remember that you are looking for someone who is the right fit for a specific role, not the person with the most impressive resume, with skills and personality that go far beyond the requirements for the job.
You can find more resources here: “Managing Unconscious Bias”, by Facebook.
The solutions I’ve suggested in this article are aimed at hiring managers, but the same advice can be applied in any parallel situation.
Remember that even the best psychology researchers and Diversity, Equality and Inclusion experts can be affected by cognitive bias. The important thing is to challenge our own thoughts and ask ourselves if impressions that first appear obvious are actually backed up by underlying evidence to make sure we’re not falling back on shortcuts.
We need to be aware of and accept the fact that our cognitive biases can influence our behavior and thoughts to the point where they change how we interact with others. By doing so, we will be able to recognize cognitive bias in others and in ourselves, which will help us avoid following unfounded reasoning from other people and counteract those patterns in our own thoughts.
However, it’s easier said than done to overcome cognitive bias in ourselves, since we use our own mindset to evaluate our reasoning — and our mind is already formed with a set of misinterpretations
There is no miracle solution, but there are a number of tricks we can use to combat our cognitive biases. The first is paying attention to our thought patterns. Dissect your reasoning throughout the thought process: Why do you think that way? How can you be sure? What evidence do you have?
Here are a few strategies to counteract your biases:
- Be honest with yourself by admitting that you have cognitive biases that can influence your thinking. Try to control them by putting practical solutions in place. Be prepared to change.
- Take a step back and imagine a clean slate. Give people the benefit of the doubt but make sure you have the right intentions. Give credit where it’s due and withhold it where it isn’t, and don’t let yourself be influenced either positively or negatively by assumptions.
- Play devil’s advocate for yourself to help change the way you think.
- Set your expectations beforehand in terms of the skills, performance and intrinsic values that you are looking for in a candidate so that you’re not influenced, and stick to them. Establish specific criteria for measuring excellent performance.
- Interview candidates alongside several other interviewers from different backgrounds to ensure a variety of points of view. Hold hiring managers accountable for the decisions they make, as this will encourage them to think carefully about their analyses.
- Encourage women and people from underrepresented groups to express their opinions more often and stand up for themselves.
- Evaluate each individual fairly. Be wary of falling into the likeability bias trap. Make sure that you assess behavior in the same way whether it’s for a man, woman or someone from a minority background. For example, a woman who expresses herself clearly, gives her opinion and defends her standpoints without worrying about damaging her reputation in a meeting may be seen as arrogant, bossy, emotional and aggressive. She is therefore categorized in negative terms, whereas a man acting in a similar way is likely to be described as a leader, confident, assertive and intelligent — benefiting from a classification in positive adjectives for the same behavior. For example, an article by Rebekah Bastian for Forbes on March 8, 2019 entitled “Personality-Based Performance Reviews Are Fine To Give Women — As Long As Men Get Them Too” states that “a study by Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio, found that negative personality feedback showed up 76% of the time in reviews of women, while only in 2% of men’s reviews.”
- Break down existing stereotypes by making sure you and your peers are sensitive to diversity, equality and inclusion issues so that you can recognize other biases that are preventing you from creating a psychologically safe space around you, whether at work or in your personal life. Ways to go about this include training, gender equality symbols and modeling good behavior.
Fact VS Bias
More measures to implement in companies
Help historically marginalized groups and women shine by:
- Highlighting positive contributions they make to the company.
- Taking steps to ensure that the whole workforce is used to seeing these people working in various key areas. By increasing their visibility, other employees will be less surprised to see them in certain roles and will categorize them differently.
- Introducing people by talking about their achievements and expertise, not just their name. For example, making sure to introduce a woman in this way will help change people’s preconceptions about her, as they will not categorize her simply as a woman but as a person with particular skills that inspire respect.
- Speaking out and standing up for others if you see jobs or projects being attributed unfairly. Point out why the person you feel has been overlooked might be well-suited to the role.
- Ensuring that leaders communicate clearly on the reasons for a success or failure, recognizing each person’s contribution fairly. Don’t congratulate men more than women or people from minority backgrounds for a successful project.
Cognitive bias is counterproductive for companies, because it tends to have a negative effect on its culture of inclusion.
Having preconceptions or stereotypes about categories of people instantly creates a fundamental lack of trust in others, which is then reciprocated. This damages psychological safety within a group, and can spread from team to team if the Executive Committee doesn’t take action and implement it at every level of the company.
If they don’t feel safe, employees will hold back from expressing themselves or suggesting ideas without fear of negative consequences. With a less engaged workforce, a company’s innovation, productivity and revenues go down.
Implicit or unconscious biases can have a significant impact on workplaces, since they influence who is selected for an interview, who is hired and who is promoted. Remember that the first step for stopping cognitive bias is awareness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dolores Crazover is the founder and CEO of DEI & You Consulting.
She has a passion for microbiology and is on a mission to complete a Rubik’s Cube within four years.
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