6 types of bias that could be holding you back

Nicky Davies
When it comes to making decisions, what assumptions are you making? 

We all have subjective biases. And we rarely question our assumptions, often because we don't have time to to break everything down, look at it closely and examine it in all its complexity. But when we're making really important decisions, life changing decisions, it’s really important to slow things down and start thinking about the assumptions or the subjective biases that you’re holding on to. 

Rationality is not a power we are born with; it’s something that we acquire with training and practice. That's why I love the power of questions: they get us to really look at our own irrationality. And our irrationality is all about subjective bias.
So what are the subjective biases we all need to be looking out for when it’s decision-making time?

1.  Confirmation bias
We all like to think we're making rational decisions, but actually what we're usually doing is constantly looking for evidence that supports our view – to the exclusion of everything else. Think about the last time you made a decision to buy something. Once you've made that purchase, do you ever find yourself hearing a little voice in your head? The one that tells you, “Yeah, that was a great decision to make! Because of X,Y and Z.” The reason we do this is because we're confirming to ourselves that we've made the right decision. And that's confirmation bias. 

So how do you overcome confirmation bias?
Look for evidence of the opposite existing; the opposite viewpoint that discredits your view. It’s about taking a scientific approach. You're trying to disprove your hypothesis – the thing that you think might be true. So if you come to recognise that you're stuck on a particular viewpoint, to the exclusion of everything else, start to look for reasons why that might not be true.

2.  Conviction bias
If something is stated with absolute certainty, we tend to believe it. This is called conviction bias. (I know I've done this with my husband – I’ve said something that I’ve believed with 100% conviction was absolutely true. And it turned out that it wasn’t at all!) You might make the statement that you are always forgetting people's names. It's dangerous territory, whenever anybody says ‘always’ or ‘never’. It's an extreme. When I hear somebody say ‘always’, or ‘never’, I start to question it in my own mind. For example, my husband does frequently forget people's names, and relies on me to remember people's names for him. But not always. 

How to avoid conviction bias
Listen to the language that you're using when you're talking to people, including to your staff. And look out for when somebody else is saying something as a statement of certainty; just make sure, listen to some of the more hesitant views, the more nuanced ideas that are being mentioned around you. Because actually there might be a better solution, or a better path forward than the one that is being outlined with such certainty.  

3. Appearance bias
If somebody comes across as being really positive, in a particular area or a particular quality, then we tend to believe that they are always positive (or, conversely, always negative). This is appearance bias. It’s the ‘halo effect’. We tend to put this halo effect on everything that the person does or says, Whatever they do or think, we’re always going to see it as positive (or it's always going to be negative). There’s that word, ‘always’, again! Listen to the language that is being used. 

Tackling appearance bias
Of course, human beings aren’t as cut and dried as that. We’re more nuanced and layered than this kind of bias suggests. No one is wholly positive or wholly negative; we all have both going on. So if you start to notice that you believe that because a message is coming from one particular person, and this person seems to be really positive most of the time, or they seem to be correct most of the time... just remember that ‘most of the time’ is not always.
 4. Groupthink
We tend to be attracted to people who think in a similar way to ourselves. And as a result of that, what tends to happen is that suddenly everyone around you is looking at things in a very similar way. When teams have worked together for a long time, and especially if they have similar perspectives, when faced with challenges, they tend to address them using very familiar thinking processes and reach similar conclusions to those in the past. We call this groupthink. It’s another type of subjective bias.

How to protect yourself from groupthink
If you want a different outlook, you're going to have to go and find people who think differently to you. Be open to having some quite uncomfortable conversations, because doing this will show up any blind spots and assumptions that you have. 

5. Blame bias
Learning from experience – from our mistakes – can be a really slow process. And we don't do it very well. In fact, what we tend to end up doing is repeating those mistakes time and time again, because we’d rather blame something external to ourselves than focus on what we are doing that causes or influences the meaning we give to an event. Over the years I’ve made some terrible investment decisions and lost a lot of money. And I've not just done it once, I've probably done it three times in total. And I've learned the lesson now about not taking huge risks with large amounts of money. But it took me three separate occasions to get to the point where I've learned that lesson. I could have learned that lesson from somebody else. In fact, there are many different investors that I've been listening to over the years, and learned from over the years, yet I still let myself get caught up in the moment and in my own biases. And after each of these three experiences I blamed the other person, or the other investment company, that was involved in me making an investment decision. But they didn't make the decision - it was me. They might have sold the idea to me, but I ultimately made the decision to invest in those things. So I was to blame, not them. 

How to avoid blame bias
This is all about finding good mentors: people who have been there, done it, and learned the lessons from their experience so you don’t have to! People who are ahead of you on a similar journey.

6.   Superiority bias
Deep down, we all want to think that we are more rational and more ethical than other people, taking the moral high ground in various situations and judging others as not so. But the truth is we are not honest 100% of the time or ethical 100% of the time. We are simply human. 

How to navigate superiority bias
Remember that we are all human and have all the traits and characteristics we admire and those we don’t too. If you are judging someone harshly for something they said or did, remind yourself of a time when you demonstrated that very same trait or characteristic. You’ll find it a humbling experience and it will enable you to see the person with less judgement. 

Recognising your own biases

Any time that you start to see yourself getting trapped into biased thinking, be mindful that you are making a whole heap of assumptions and have a whole set of beliefs around whatever it is you’re considering. Recognise and acknowledge that you are not seeing the full picture. Being able to recognise your own biases and ask yourself really good quality questions will make a huge difference to your life, your relationships, and to your decision-making ability.
author bio

Nicky Davies

Trusted Business Mentor & Executive Coach Nicky is CEO of WAVA Global, developing inspired leaders in organisations around the world. Her love of sailing means that she spends 6 months of the year with her family on their sailboat in the Mediterranean.

Nicky also has a podcast, Developing Inspired Leaders, and can be contacted via LinkedIn or her website: www.nickyjdavies.com.
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