On any given day we make dozens, maybe hundreds of decisions and choices. Whether large or small, life changing or just a minor adjustment, they are all influenced by our unconscious biases and, being unconscious, we are unaware they exist until and unless we start recognising their impact.
Although we might like to think that we are fair, balanced and considered when it comes to how we decide on something, in fact we’re not and our biases affect not only how we make decisions but also how we see the world, how we behave, where we focus our attention, our interactions, the way we remember things, our beliefs and what we hold to be important. In other words, they affect almost everything and 114 biases have been identified … so far!
One common one is the negativity bias which has us paying more attention to negative rather than positive experiences or information. For example, if we received feedback from ten people about the quality of our work and eight people thought it was awesome and two saw errors and areas for improvement it is likely that we ignore the eight and focus on the two. Research indicates that we need five positive experiences to outweigh one negative.
Another one you may recognise is the confirmation bias which has us searching for or interpreting information that confirms and reinforces an existing belief or preconception.
One particularly significant bias (and one which may link to the confirmation one above) is the horns and halo effect. This can be described as ‘the tendency to allow one’s judgement of another person to be unduly influenced by an unfavourable (horns) or favourable (halo) first impression based on appearances’. It may have happened for you at times in a social setting when you meet someone for the first time and the way they look, sound, or speak reminds you of someone else. If you like that other person, then you’re likely to like this new one (halo) and vice versa (horns).
That may or may not be a problem depending on the circumstances but imagine that you are on the receiving end of such a bias in a recruitment interview for example. What if you reminded one of the interview panel of someone they don’t like or don’t get along with? Even if you have the skills, experience and attributes to be successful in the job, their perception of you is already clouded and that could mean that you are not offered the job.
Although these biases may play out differently for each of us based on our lived experience, it is important for us to acknowledge that they do exist, outside our immediate awareness, and do our best to recognise where they may be having an impact.
The next time you are about to make a choice or decision, particularly if it is a major one, take a moment to stop and consider what is driving it and explore some different possibilities and perspectives before moving ahead. It could make all the difference to the result.
By Rowena Hardy