Whether a manager, a sports person, an investor, or a dustman It is vital to understand our personal bias and manage it .
Every decision we make requires some level of objectivity to stand a good chance of serving us well.
“You’re faced with around 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The brain can only process about 40 of those bits of information and so it creates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions”
A large part of each decision will utilise principals and strategies that we have developed over time. Without these assets we could not function, our thinking would be just too slow
It is nevertheless also the case that alongside of these positive assets we develop bias that is not helpful or positive.
e.g. an Employer with race or age bias will miss recruitment opportunities resulting in lost production and opportunities. Its probably impossible to be human and not collect some of this negative bias, but it is possible and absolutely crucial to know what your bias is and be vigilant. Thats a different thing from beating yourself up over it. You’re human, you’re allowed to be imperfect, but if you deliberately fail to do what you know is the right thing, that is another situation altogether.
– A footballer who always gives up at the last millisecond against bigger players and limps off apparently injured with a “losers limp”.
– A poker player who gets over ambitious every time he wins and then loses big time.
– A recruiter who dumps CVs with 10pt or smaller type and misses some of the best talent.
– A golfer who panics at the top of the back swing grips and swings down with all his force running out of energy, line and balance long before it gets to the ball and will often continue to do this for his entire lifetime.
A belief that bigger people will be stronger, or more aggressive is a common misconception.
Believing in the god of luck instead of the mathematics affects all kinds of people, even statisticians can fall to it.
Being too lazy to adjust the type size before printing is unbelievably common, as is struggling with weak eyesight without seeking help.
Focusing on the map instead of the territory or vice versa is universal.
These are very easy problems to cure, but some can be a little tougher.
Here’s the simple map:
1. Recognise and admit that you do it and the cost to you, or spot opportunities to leverage it in your favour.
2. Work out how to confront your negative bias head on.
3. Recognise any influences that work to maintain the bias.
4. Keep on until the habit is replaced with the right behaviour.
5, If you can’t get rid of it entirely then simply keep checking for it and adjusting.
6. Play to your strengths and expose yourself to the situations you are best at.
How to watch for and recognize personal bias.
Look at the things that went wrong recently, track down the bad decisions you made that lead to them. Be brutally honest and replay the decision process to see where it went wrong. There, lurking in the shadows, you will often find a negative bias driving the bad decisions.
Another useful tactic is to ask close friends or colleagues that you trust. Be prepared to be shocked.
Finally look for the classic forms of bias:
Confirmation bias: Only looking where you can be confident of finding the thing you want to find. Or seeing what you expect to see in spite of the evidence.
Anchoring: My only tool is a hammer therefore every problem looks like a nail.
Halo effect: This works in football so its bound to work in the kitchen, or I am good at A so I m bound to be good at B.
Overconfidence: I am so good, I cant be wrong, don’t question me, or advise me. If I accept help, I will look weak.
Groupthink: It’s important to fit in with the others, especially the cool ones.
Outdated: Clinging to principals that once were sound, but are now damaging. (That includes situations when you are right)
How to confront personal bias head on.
It may not be easy, because the driver behind a bias will often be an emotion such as irrational fear, hatred, greed, etc. Fear is by far the most common of these emotions. The other very strong candidate is peer pressure i.e. you have this bias because all the members of your peer group have it and it is part of the acceptance criteria. Sometimes it is conditioned from an early age.
How to identify the influences and counter them
The footballer in our example could join a boxing club and realise that he can easily hold his own against much bigger guys, but smaller ones can be very good. That would be a way to get rid of the irrational fear and open the door for a more confident player that went the last yard with full commitment.
A sound strategy that counters many forms of bias is this; when you have time to do it, seek a conflicting view to yours and study it. Either it will strengthen your conviction or it will open your eyes. In either case you will reap big benefits. An easy way to maximise this affect is working with your team to arrive at joint decisions and acting as chair. This externalsies the process for you and develops your team at the same team.
Ask yourself how friends and colleagues in your circles will react to your changed behaviour. Often you will recognise the source of your bias as a peer group who reinforce the bias. This can be a tough decision, but sometimes one of them has to go.
Often one of these bias’ will seem to be part of who you are and you are reluctant to change, but that is simply untrue. Bias changes over time all on its own without your intervention except not always in a positive and helpful way
How to keep at it until you win
Don’t expect miracles, you will slip a few times, but focus your thoughts on the positive outcomes you are expecting to achieve. The moment a negative thought about it begins in your mind, immediately replace it with something pleasant, or even downright naughty, but zap that negativity. When you make a mistake, pretend you have just had a triumph, celebrate and reward yourself so you stay positive. If you can find an admirable role model that will help an awful lot.
Once the benefits begin to accrue it will become a no-brainer.
How to be vigilant
Lets say I’m an investment manager and I handle billions in investors money. I have somebody data mining my trades to point out to me when a bias appears to be forming. He rushes to my desk and he says: “You have sold a day too soon on 70% of hour trades since last Monday, is there something you need to talk about?”
I think it over for a while, we look through the figures and I see that I had a heavy loss a week ago when I held on too long. I had been warned about the potential effects of a certain political situation and blamed the error on being too optimistic. I have been running scared since and selling in panic.
Poker payers call this “On tilt”, For most of us, it is unfortunately part of our untutored makeup, but it is deadly in the world of a dealer and won’t do the rest of us any good either.
Once I know it exists and I can see the cause, fixing this is easy. I just watch the charts, follow the rules, feel the fear and deal with it.
The real damage that negative bias does is rarely mentioned
To fully understand how important this subject is, you heed to delve a little into how the brain works.
Learning is a process of:
1. Observing our environment and absorbing communications and stimuli,
2. Making sense of the information we find is a process of comparing new information to stuff we already have stored away and passing it through filters to find out how we will classify it. These filters are made up of strategies and principals (positive bias) and negative bias. These are applied in the “fast thinking” subconscious part of the process. Consciously considering it all and applying logic.
3. Deciding how to classify the new information and whether we want to keep it?
4. Acting on your new knowledge means using it in the real world and this is the final step in learning. The problem here is that unless you are capable of honestly and objectively examining the feedback, your learning process is already broken and you are destined to swamp your brain with destructive conflicting rubbish.
How you classify information will govern whether or not you are able to reuse it. If you are carrying around filters that are wrong then you will spend your time rejecting valuable information and misclassifying critical knowledge. The damage continues and escalates.
Finally, when you act upon your new information and look for feedback, you will accept stuff according to your broken filters and the other broken bias such as conformation bias, group think and their mischevious friends.
Managing our personal bias is as important as brushing our teeth, but the rewards are much greater. It’s not about not making mistakes, it’s about watching out for them and taking action.
Word or concept associations in dictionary form is a key part of how humans store and retrieve information.
The speed at which we are able to memorise these associations is far superior to any other form of information storage and retrieval.
Speak the name of a country and most of us can instantly reply with its capital city. It comes naturally.
When we make an association between grey hair and age or age and frailty, or obesity and laziness etc etc, we are then sowing the seeds of bias that is neither useful nor helpful.