5 Common biases, and what you can do about them!

Biases. We all have ’em. ALL of us.

But what exactly are they and how do we notice when they start to influence our thinking and our behaviours?

A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone.

They’re like mental shortcuts that have evolved over time, sometimes of our own doing and based on our own experiences, but all are underpinned by our neurological need to process information quickly. Let’s think about our primitive brain’s reactions in term of fight, flight and freeze. Processing information quickly was a much needed life skill when we roamed the earth seeking to meet our most basic of human needs. And I mean life skill literally — WATCH OUT LION!

These shortcuts do still remains a useful skill today too, as every day we are presented with thousands of pieces of information to process at any one time, so we do need a filter. But… we’re no longer living in a society where making quick calculations about people we don’t know is a useful skill. For the most part, we already have our most basic needs of food, shelter and warmth met, and we don’t need to worry about wondering if that person from the next village over is really here for nice chat or if they’re looking to steal my sheep!

But centuries of brain shortcuts cannot be undone overnight, and it takes conscious effort for us to learn the difference between biases that serve us, such as choosing to eat foods that we consider healthy, or avoiding a person who has knowingly caused us harm, and biases that hinder us, or simply make us a bit of an arse.

Let’s do a little test…

We’re off on our holidays (hooray), we’re successfully cleared security and we’re excitedly boarding the place. As we arrive to the gate, visualise the flight attendant that greets you. What do they look like?

We’ve boarded the plane and, yes, we’ve got the window seat! We can see our luggage being loaded below us. What does the baggage handler holding our bag look like?

Finally, we’re preparing for take-off and the captain starts to make their announcements as we taxi to the runway. Their telling us about the journey time and what the weather is like in our amazing destination. What do they sound like? What do you think you know about them from their voice alone?

The chances are in these examples you will have conjured a specific image of the people described, you will likely have pictured their gender, skin colour, clothing, whether they are smiling or not, wearing make-up or not, and you may even have thoughts about their competence levels too. Now ask yourself, how much have these images we’ve created playing into certain stereotypes of these particular roles?

What is Stereotyping?

Stereotyping is the common assumptions we make based upon belonging to a certain group. It’s one of the most common biases we all hold. Take our flight attendant. The chances are you pictured a smiling, slim, white woman, ready to greet you as you boarded. But did you know that between 20–30% of flight attendants are men? So, you’ve got a 1 in 4 chance of being greeted by a man at that gate… but I wonder whether 1 in 4 of us will imagine it that way as we head to the airport this summer?

How to counteract stereotype bias? Again, we need to interrupt our thinking, and challenge ourselves as to why we make the assumptions we do. If we’re making a connection about who someone is based solely upon certain aspects of their identity, we need to stop in our tracks immediately, shake that etch-a-sketch for a clean slate, and start over again.

What are other common types of bias?

Affinity bias: We are more likely to like people who are like us.

An example of this can be found in sports teams or hobbies.

Can you remember the last time you met someone for the first time, and you realised you both supported the same sports team, or has a passion for the same hobby? How did this make you feel towards them? The chances are you would find yourself feeling more warmly towards that person and making a more positive assessment of their character based upon this fact along, including how trustworthy or kind they might be. Which, in reality, is simply not true. Affinity bias means we will impose our feelings towards ourselves on another person because we have a shared commonality, but in fact, we may actually know very little about them.

How to counteract affinity bias? When you feel yourself being drawn in by someone in this way, you can start by asking yourself “why am I drawn to this person specifically?”. If the answer is nothing more than your shared common interest, you may want to start asking a few more questions to get to know them a little better, especially before you ask them to look after your wallet!

Halo and horns bias: Having one positive or negative feeling that overrides all other aspects or evidence.

Remember when we were kids, and we thought our parent or parents were practically perfect in every way? And then, at some point we had to start facing facts that are parents, no matter how awesome they are, are still human people. That maybe they don’t know the answer to every question ever, and they might even have some flaws? That’s what this is.

When we hold a belief about someone or something that prevents us from properly assessing any other evidence we may receive or causes us to discount things they may say or do that don’t match up to the belief we hold.

How to counteract halo or horns bias? This is a good one to watch out for at interviews. You’ve already seen one great candidate for a role, and you’re not sure any of the others can beat them. When the next person arrives, you notice they’re quite nervous and they don’t look like the type of person you would normally hire. This is the point that your “horns” bias will try to trick you into recognising all the reasons why they’re not as great as the previous candidate. This is also where we need to ask ourselves if we’re really listening to what they’re saying, or if we’re allowing our bias to filter information to confirm what we originally thought was true. Instead, take time ahead of conversations to prepare your own mindset and be ready to receive people, exactly as they are. If you’re only noticing things that are either all good or all concerning, ask yourself “what am I missing here?”, and make sure you’re making judgements based upon the whole person.

Attribution bias: How we evaluate the behaviour of others, attributing their flaws or failures to their personality and not circumstances.

When was the last time you made a slight mistake driving? Maybe you pulled out in front of someone, didn’t see someone waiting for a space, or misjudged which lane you needed to be in. Sometimes it can make us feel pretty bad, right? We drive on a few junctions, blushing and muttering to ourselves, and hoping the other person doesn’t end up in the traffic right next to us. But ultimately it’s ok, because we know we didn’t do it intentionally, and we’re a good driver most of the time right? In fact, if we ask Dunning-Kruger, we’re probably slightly better than average! But it was simply the circumstance we found ourselves in, and we’re still a good person.

The thing is, when the roles are reversed, and someone pulls out in front of us, takes the space we were waiting for, or ends up switching lanes at the last minute, we immediately blame their character and not the circumstance. We might call them names, make assumptions about the brand of car they’re driving, or even blame their gender or age! But the truth is that it’s highly unlikely their behaviour at that moment was due to their personality, and it’s much more probable they simply misjudged something or made a mistake.

How to counteract attribution bias? Quite simply, ask yourself “would I have this same reaction if it was me doing x, y or z?”

Recency bias: That we remember people more favourably when we have interacted with them more recently.

Put simply, our brains like shortcuts, so remembering something that occurred more recently is just easier for us to do. But what happens when a person has an excellent year at work, and makes one mistake right before their annual review? How much do we let that influence us? Or when we need to think of candidates for an exciting new project? Whose name comes to mind first?

How to counteract recency bias? Ask yourself “why does this person specifically come to mind?” and “who else am I overlooking when I think only of them?”. Make sure you take a helicopter view too, taking note of things that people have achieved or been challenged by in both the short and longer term.

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive lift of biases. But it should be enough to set you on your way to challenging yourself and those around you.

If you want to take a deeper dive into how biases may present themselves within you specifically, I recommend taking a look at the Harvard Project Implicit Bias Test UK version or for an even deeper look, the US version. You can use this tool to test yourselves on all kinds of biases, including gender, race, sexuality, age and disability. You can also take tests that challenge your association biases too, such as associating gender with career, or the sciences.

How are you noticing when bias shows up in your thinking and your actions?

And how are you challenging and correcting yourself?

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Katie Allen

Katie Allen

Helping leaders avoid foot in mouth moments since 2020. Specialist diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, and executive coach.