Cognitive bias is a strong inclination of thought or a preconceived opinion about something or someone. It can be positive or negative. There are many kinds of biases, and most are formed by us without much thought – in other words, they’re ingrained, and we may not even question ‘what we know’ or how we know it.
Cognitive bias refers to the ways in which we, as human beings, use our minds to interpret the world around us despite a lack of evidence that these interpretations are correct.
The damage that biases of any kind can inflict is considerable, more so because they’re often unfounded. We risk offending others and possibly hurting ourselves in the process when we automatically react to our biases without stopping to think if we’re behaving in the best interests of those around us.
Here are some common biases:
When we prioritise agreeing with others above speaking our own truth.
Courtesy bias occurs when we feel compelled to give an opinion which matches that of the people around us regardless of our own views and opinions so that we can avoid conflict or social rejection. Depending on the situation, this type of bias can be either innocuous or detrimental to us.
You’re at a party and a group of people are discussing football and collectively agree that a particular football team is the best. When you’re asked your opinion, you automatically agree with their collective view despite this not being true for you. As a result, you perceive the risk of being excluded from the group as being reduced.
When we prefer that which is closer to us over that which is further away.
Distance bias reflects the human instinct to prioritise people or things that are in close proximity to us. In other words, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can easily become reality when we’re unaware of this type of bias.
You invite your immediate team for an after-work drink but forget to ask if your colleague who works from home would like to join you.
When we see something as obvious and choose our response solely on that.
Expedience bias leads us to accept the most obvious answer to a question, often at the expense of answers that might be more relevant, have more insight, or are more useful to us. On an unconscious level, we tend to filter out answers that don’t tally with our own experience or instinctive point of view in order to quicken the decision-making process, hence the term expedience. However, this can lead us to ignore a more appropriate answer.
You see a shirt on sale for £40 and one that is very similar for £20. Based on the idea that ‘you get what you pay for’, you assume that the more expensive, premium-branded shirt is better quality and will last longer.
When we take our perception of something or someone to be the objective truth.
As human beings, we are vulnerable to only taking our own experiences into account and assuming that other people will agree with us. As we all see the world differently, according to our own unique lived experiences and background, this can’t be objectively true. Experience bias occurs when we feel that our experiences are the only ones that count. In other words, if someone else’s experience is different to our own, we’re more likely to assume that our experience is right and theirs is wrong.
Someone who has experienced depression but recovered quickly with self-help measures might not understand why their friend who has depression requires ongoing medication and needs much more time to recover from their depressive episode.
When we feel confident that our beliefs are correct simply because those around us hold the same beliefs.
We tend to surround ourselves with people who share our world view, spiritual beliefs, interests, politics, and sense of humour. This is a natural behaviour and is one way that human beings can feel a sense of belonging. However, if we are influenced only by those who share our beliefs, we are at risk of not understanding the complexity of life and how people can have a belief that is different from the one which we hold, yet is still valid.
Jane voted for a particular political party as did all of her family and her peers. When she meets someone who tells her that he voted for another party, Jane assumes that his view is wrong and detrimental to the country. Were Jane to look into the platform of the party she chose, she might find that she doesn’t in fact even agree with some of their beliefs.
When we assume that an individual is worth more or less solely because of their gender.
Gender bias means discriminating against one gender while seeing other genders as being superior. In most societies, gender bias occurs mainly against women, but this isn’t always the case.
A patient awaiting treatment in A&E assumes that the staff member who arrives to help him is a nurse when in fact she’s a doctor. When he learns that she is in charge of his care, he becomes upset because he believes that female doctors aren’t as competent as their male counterparts.
When we protect against loss more than we seek out gain.
Safety bias refers to the very human tendency to avoid experience of loss, even to the extent that we might not seek gain. In other words, protecting what we have is more important than getting something that we don’t yet have.
A colleague who you know is in the right asks you to defend something they’ve said to another colleague. You know that you could help them, and would gain their respect and gratitude, but you decline because you risk losing your status with the mutual colleague whom you perceive as more senior and influential.
When we consciously believe that we are right based on random information we’ve gathered unconsciously.
Despite our best efforts, all human beings have unconscious biases. Our brain is constantly receiving information from a range of sources including other people, the media, and our experiences which we then use as shortcuts to speed up decision making via our automatic thoughts and responses to a particular situation or issue. Unconscious bias is the outcome of this process. Although there are times quick decision making is useful, for example if we’re faced with a fight or flight situation, it’s generally fallible and can cause us to believe things that just aren’t true.
The good news is that once we become aware of our unconscious biases, we can challenge our automatic thoughts by educating ourselves about why a particular belief may be unfounded.
John trusts people who are from his own cultural background over those who do not share his ethnicity. Of course, were John to really examine this bias, he’d see that it’s not rooted in evidence, nor does it make any sense.
The halo effect
Another form of unconscious bias is known as the halo effect. This is the tendency to develop a positive impression of someone or something based on limited information.
You see a photograph of a well-groomed, attractive person and unconsciously draw the conclusion that they are a decent person when in fact, they might be the complete opposite.
The horn effect
Closely linked to the halo effect, this is a tendency to develop a negative impression of someone or something based on limited information.
You take an immediate dislike to a new colleague for no reason other than she subconsciously reminds you of someone who bullied you when you were at school.