TITLE S ERVICE• BIASES
Beyond Bias Make better decisions. by Gary Cohen
HILE YOU MAY THINK
that you can make important decisions free of bias, you are likely biased to some degree. But there are ways to manage it in order to serve others more fairly and effectively. The first step is to identify six common sources of bias that can have a big impact on your decisions: 1. Historical bias. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said George Santayana. When you hear this quote, you can anticipate what comes next: a plea to study historical situations that parallel the current one in order to learn from past mistakes and, to a lesser extent perhaps, successes. What you don’t often hear is the warning that ought to follow: Context matters—a lot. For example, in making decisions as Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke relies heavily on his study of the economy during the Great Depression. To date, the results of Bernanke’s maneuvers have been largely positive, and he’s earned his share of supporters. Warren Buffet, for one, gives Bernanke a thumbs-up for helping avert a monetary catastrophe. Santayana subscribers are likely pleased by Bernanke’s impulse to employ lessons from the past, but today’s economy is vastly different from the 1920’s. Back then, the FDIC had not set up insurance for depositors, Freddie and Fannie May did not exist, the flow of information was slower, and the international community was not nearly as interdependent. An ominous cloud of debt hangs above us, and Bernanke’s strategy may prove penny-wise and pound- (or multi-trillion-dollar) foolish. It’s important to learn from past mistakes and successes, but don’t overlook the importance and complexity of current conditions—of context. Otherwise, you might wind up with a problem of unprecedented proportions. 2. Negative emotional bias. You recall negative events more often and more sharply than you do positive ones—in part because memory serves an evolutionary purpose, warning you of dangers. This enhanced recall of negative events may explain why you may spend
a disproportionate amount of time trying to avoid past mistakes rather than trying to find new successes. Naturally, leaders want to spare coworkers the negative events they endured, but it’s not always possible and it’s not always prudent (especially when the costs are low). People like to take risks and experience things for themselves. Leaders would do well to remember this before they parcel out cautionary advice or prohibitions. Experience is a better teacher than most, if not all, leaders. Leaders need to serve as resources, but not impede learning. Leaders ought to hold their coworkers accountable for results, but they shouldn’t let their failures, or their coworkers’, inhibit future risk-taking.
3. Pattern recognition bias. Your brain performs two functions very well: storing invariant memories of all past sensory data and recognizing patterns so it knows where to store those inputs. Unfortunately, these two functions adversely affect decision-making. Your brain is uncomfortable with ambiguity. It will attach information to a known pattern, even if it’s not a perfect fit. There may not be much of a fit at all. Your brain is so eager to predict and file information that you’re apt to overlook or oversimplify complex issues. I often encounter leaders who are experts at predicting their colleagues’ behavior. These leaders get what they expect, in part because their expectations are simple, known, and comforting—unlike complex or evolving issues. Instead of supporting a colleague’s desire to change, some leaders express disbelief. In fact, they sit and wait, looking to pounce on a return to the old behavior: “Aha! I knew you wouldn’t change!” They want to be proven right, it seems, more than they
want to revise their beliefs. Revising beliefs requires a re-filing of information, of course, which our brains resist. If someone is trying to change, be their advocate. Be receptive to new information and patterns. Open a new file. 4. Frequency bias. What may seem like serendipity or pure coincidence may be a product of frequency bias. Many news outlets work off the same news feeds. Bloggers comment on what appears on these outlets or other blogs, and soon it feels like you can’t turn around without hearing about Tiger’s one-car accident and rumored affair, or Kristen Stewart’s skyrocketing career, or Zhu Zhu Pets as the hot holiday gift for kids. It’s more about re-scooping today, than it is about getting the scoop. Use the frequency bias to your benefit whenever possible (getting your brand or name out on multiple channels), but don’t mistake the omnipresence of an image, person, product, or event for its true importance. Make decisions based upon objective merits, not the number of media “hits”. 5. Attachment bias. It’s hard to fully appreciate your bias toward known entities—people, product, processes. You may be blind to how far that attachment extends. Kodak built its brand and business on film, but they were also the first to discover digital photography. They had the sense to patent their discoveries, but imagine how hard it must have been to let go of film: their meal ticket since 1888. Then again, imagine how hard it must be to watch their revenue base erode, as they scurry to keep up with digital imaging. 6. Recency bias. When read a list of items, you are more apt to recall the items at the end. The first items on the list are also more memorable than the ones in the middle. Awareness of your tendency to recall first and (especially) last items can lead to better decisionmaking. It might help you, for instance, give job candidates who weren’t the first or last interviewed a fair shake. We’re all biased—so rather than operate from a position of moral certainty, start decision-making processes by taking a bias inventory. Ask, “How might my opinion be shaped by historical precedent, negative emotional experiences, positive emotional attachment, or predictive predilections?” and “How might I be influenced by a frequency or recency bias?” Your decisions may not be bias-free, but they’ll be wiser. PE Gary B. Cohen is the author of JUST ASK LEADERSHIP (McGraw-Hill) and cofounder of CO2Partners, LLC. Visit www.justaskleadership.com. ACTION: Recognize your biases.
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