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Eight types of bias in decision making

Written 27 December, 2018, 4 minutes to read

As much as we like to think we’re open-minded and impartial, a ton of different biases are continually influencing us – affecting our thinking, behaviors and decisions. While some are openly apparent, many biases are unconscious; you may have no idea you’re under the influence of a bias that’s distorting your way of thinking.

To protect workplace diversity, create inclusive cultures where everyone is represented, collaborate effectively and simply just make the best choice in any given situation, we need to be in control of them. Here are eight common biases affecting your decision making and what you can do to master them.

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Survivorship bias

Paying too much attention to successes, while glossing over failures.

Survivorship bias can lead us to become overly optimistic, because we only look at those who prospered. It means we simplify success, assuming that if we emulate the same actions we’ll achieve the same victory.

Example: when researching startups, you’ll read about the most profitable new companies, but because you’re not spending the same amount of time studying the companies that failed, you’ll come away with an inaccurate idea of the probability of success.

How can you control it? The key to countering survivorship bias is examining circumstances as a whole. Don’t cherry pick data, and always consider pessimistic viewpoints: if you know one company succeeded, find out how many failed.

Confirmation bias

Placing more value on information that supports our existing beliefs.

We have an instinctive inclination to do what makes us feel good, so we often only listen to or respect the data that aligns with our own viewpoints. This leads us to reject any information that opposes our beliefs. But relying on material that substantiates pre-formed views leads to biased decision making.

How can you control it? If your decision-making is based on something you believe, challenge your pre-existing viewpoints. Ensure you take information from varied sources, consider different perspectives, and discuss your opinions with people who think differently. Before making decisions, always play devil’s advocate and contest your verdict in as many ways possible.

The IKEA effect

Placing too much value on the things we’ve done ourselves, often while discounting other people’s smart ideas or good work.

The brain has a tendency to put excessively higher value on jobs or projects that we’ve been part of. This is because we tend to prize things that mean something to us personally, even if they aren’t actually valuable or helpful.

How can you control it? Be honest with yourself about why you’re backing something. Is it really the best decision? Or are you making this decision because it reinforces your self-confidence?

Anchoring bias

Being overly influenced by the first piece of information we receive.

It’s also known as “first impression bias”, and relates to the tendency to leap to conclusions based solely on what we learned early on; once your opinion is formed, it can be difficult to consider other options. This bias is common where people are stressed or feel they have to make a snap decision.

How can you control it? If you know you act hastily, slow down: ask for more time, where possible, and consider when you make your decision whether it’s influenced by a rush to find a verdict.

Overconfidence biases

Thinking your contribution is more important than it is.

This bias occurs when people are overly confident in their intelligence, experience or opinions. It can mask us from the truth and cause people to take risks, certain they’re correct in their assumptions. Overconfidence bias can go hand-in-hand with anchoring; with limited knowledge or experience, an idealistic faith in your own decisions can lead you to act hastily or on hunches.

How can you control it? Try to be self-aware and ask yourself questions: What information did you use to form your decision? Was this information based on facts or hunches? Was it gathered methodically? If the data was in any way compromised, how can you make it objective?

Planning fallacy

Underestimating the time it will take us to finish a task.

Often when people are scheduling work they think of the best-case situation, then blindly presume the end result will follow the plan, without considering any elements – unexpected or otherwise – that might cause delays. This problem rests largely on our inability to say no. We’re trained to say yes when asked to do things, even if they negatively affect us.

How can you control it? The biggest thing you can do is learn to say no. Schedule your time and give yourself a buffer between finishing one task and starting another one.

Availability heuristic

Placing more value on the first idea that comes into your head.

Availability heuristic describes how we believe that because we remembered something, it must be significant. It can also mean being biased by the newest, most recent information you’ve heard, or guessing the likelihood of an event occurring based on how many similar situations you can think of.

It’s effectively a cognitive shortcut, saving us time when calculating risk. But it often means missing out on other solutions, because you’re convinced the first idea is the right one.

How can you control it? The trick is to doubt your first answer, no matter how good it seems. Send it back and consider other alternatives, even if you end up reverting back to your original answer.

Progress bias

Overstating positive actions while downplaying negative ones.

This is when we give too much credit to the good things we’ve done, despite the fact they’re offset by the not-so-good. We have a tendency to overemphasize the consequences of our constructive actions, while at the same time underrating the consequences of our harmful actions. Progress bias can cause people to make bad choices, as they think they’re in a more beneficial standing than they are.

Example: if someone ate healthily all week but indulges on the weekend, they’re likely to overstate their positive actions while minimizing the unhealthy behavior.

How can you control it? Try to establish frequent feedback opportunities. Don’t look at the smaller picture – e.g. how you behaved on one day – but examine the whole week.

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