11 April 2024 | Dr Jo Kandola

Common types of bias and how they affect us

There are many different types of bias that can affect our judgment, behaviour and decisions. We take a look at some of the most common and examine the impact they can have in the workplace.
Description

Biases are essentially mental shortcuts that our brains take in order to process information quickly and that result in a preference for certain people or things. Psychologists have identified over 150 different types of bias, and they play an important role in determining our behaviour, the decisions we make about other people and how we assess situations.

In his seminal work on bias ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman estimates that as many as 95% of the decisions we make use these irrational shortcuts that cloud our judgement and impair our choices.  Our brain, Kahneman concludes from 40 years of research, is quite simply a machine that’s built to jump to conclusions – and while this might have served our ancestors well in their quest to survive predators and make sense of a natural world that was fraught with danger, it can cause all kinds of problems for us today.

Different types of bias in the workplace

Let’s have a look at a few of the most common types of bias and the impact they can have in the workplace.

Unconscious bias

Our ‘gut feeling’ about people and situations can be very powerful – but our instincts are rarely objective and there is a tendency for people to be influenced by what’s known as unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to the automatic, ingrained judgments or stereotypes that we hold about other people based on characteristics such as their ethnic background, gender, age, sexual orientation or physical ability. It’s formed through a myriad of influences such as our social background, our personal experiences, the media and exposure to entrenched stereotypes in society, and can affect decisions and behaviour that impact a wide range of aspects of business operations and processes that require us to be fair and objective.

As the name suggests, we are often completely unaware of our unconscious biases – and they don’t necessarily reflect our conscious beliefs – but they can still have a significant impact on the decisions we make and how we interact with those around us.

Cognitive bias

While they can also get in the way of us being fair and objective, cognitive biases are different to unconscious bias in that they are essentially systematic patterns of deviation from the norm or rationality in judgement. Cognitive biases often involve subjective interpretations of information and can affect our decision-making and our interpretation of events, leading us to make irrational or unfair judgments about people, form inaccurate beliefs or make bad decisions based on erroneous conclusions.

Groupthink

Description

No-one wants to be the sole dissenting voice in a meeting or disagree with the leader, but pressure to reach a consensus is the enemy of great decision-making. Born out of a desire for harmony and a reluctance to ‘rock the boat’, groupthink occurs when a group of people makes decisions or form opinions in a way that discourages dissent or critical thinking. This can lead to poor or unsustainable decision-making, reduced creativity and a lack of consideration for alternative viewpoints or the needs of under-represented groups, both in the organisation itself and the community or customers it serves.

Action bias

Originally a means of ensuring that we were quick to run away from danger or ready to fight our enemies, the inclination to act impulsively or make decisions without fully examining relevant data, evaluating the potential consequences or exploring alternative options can lead to a range of long-term problems for businesses. These can include poorly conceived strategies and a lack of planning to wasted time, money and resources – not to mention an exhausted and demotivated workforce.

Stereotypes

Description

One of the most pervasive forms of unconscious bias and one that exerts a powerful influence over us, stereotypes are fixed, over-generalised and simplified beliefs about groups of people, most commonly around personal characteristics such as age, race, social background and gender. Negative stereotyping in the workplace can lead to people not getting the opportunities and recognition they deserve, causing them to become demotivated and under-perform.

We can also internalise negative stereotypes about ourselves, creating a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, where people feel at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group, leading to diminished confidence and poor performance.

Confirmation bias

Weighing up contradictory pieces of information and making a decision is time-consuming and requires mental effort, and it can be uncomfortable to have to consider evidence or opinions that go against what we believe.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out, interpret, favour or remember information in a way that confirms or supports our existing beliefs. The flip side of this is that we tend to forget, downplay or reject information that doesn’t.

This kind of bias can have a significant impact on hiring decisions if we look for evidence to support our initial perception of a candidate – perhaps on the basis of their appearance, their accent or where they studied – and disregard evidence that doesn’t back this up. It can also significantly reduce our ability to identify someone’s potential, as we may unconsciously favour people who align with our existing beliefs and assumptions about what makes a ‘successful employee’ and close our minds to people with different skillsets or experiences.

Negativity bias

All of us have a hard-wired negativity bias – that is, a tendency to focus more on negative things than we do on positive things. A product of our distant past when it was better to be suspicious than trusting, it can lead us to spend a lot of time fretting disproportionately about the bad stuff.

At work, for example, it might cause us to dwell on one negative comment from our boss and disregard all the positive feedback they’ve given us previously, and if allowed to take hold it can be a major contributor to decreased motivation, low self-worth and poor mental well-being.

Suppression effect

This bias occurs when we actively try not to discuss something because we are afraid of how we’ll be judged by others, but it can have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing our thoughts and making them more prominent. This is because when we suppress a thought, we label it in our brains as ‘bad’. Unfortunately, however, our brains’ negativity bias ensures that we’re primed to keep an eye out for ‘bad things’, and as a result, we can find these thoughts become increasingly intrusive.

Similar-to-me bias

The similar-to-me effect is a bias that explains our tendency to prefer people who look, think and behave like us. It all goes back to our caveman ancestors’ need to quickly tell friend from foe, but in a working environment, it can lead us to over-value people simply because we feel an affinity with them, rather than on the basis of their skills or experience. This can lead to a lack of diversity of thought that impacts organisational agility and innovation.

Proximity bias

Description

The post-Covid shift to remote and hybrid working has made us more aware than ever of how our visibility at work can affect relationships with our boss and co-workers.

Proximity bias is all about how we tend to view people who are physically closer to us more favourably than those we rarely see in person – and it’s compounded by long-standing stereotypes around home-workers being less productive and office-based staff being more dedicated.

Priming

Priming happens when exposure to something influences our thoughts or behaviour without us being aware of it. This can be something as simple as associating a particular colour with a certain object – like connecting the colour ‘yellow’ with bananas – but it can also affect our judgement about people’s abilities and potential. An example of this would be assessing a female candidate more favourably than a male candidate for a newly vacated role because the person who previously did the job was a woman.

Self-serving bias

As humans, we are all prone to thinking that we are better at something than we really are. This can lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about our own abilities or performance as we strive to maintain our self-esteem by taking credit when things go well, but blaming external factors such as other people or bad luck when things go wrong.

Self-serving bias can cause big problems when it comes to inclusion, as we all have a tendency to believe that we are fair and inclusive. Consequently, we may not think that we are biased or that we need to change our behaviour when in fact we do.

Other types of bias

While these are just some of the most common types of bias we might encounter in the workplace, there are many more that can come in and cloud our thinking if we’re not careful.

Anchoring bias occurs when we rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive when making a decision, which then influences our subsequent judgments and decisions – even if it’s of little or no relevance.

Contrast effect happens when the way we perceive something is distorted by the presence of something else that differs significantly, such as judging someone’s performance more positively simply because they are being compared to a colleague whose performance is particularly poor.

Beauty bias is our tendency to favour those who are perceived as physically attractive over those who are perceived as less attractive, and it can lead us to make inaccurate assumptions about people’s abilities or intentions.

Conformity bias occurs when individuals adopt the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of a majority or influential group out of a desire to fit in and be accepted by the group, or to avoid conflict.

Social desirability bias can lead us to respond to questions in a way that we think others will view favourably, rather than being honest and accurate.

Survivorship bias can affect our perceptions of success rates or probabilities by causing us to focus on the people or things that have ‘survived’ a process while overlooking those that did not due to their lack of visibility.

Overcoming bias in the workplace

Bias is a natural phenomenon that affects all of us – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it.

The Kandola+ Unconscious Bias training programme explains the impact bias can have in the workplace, how we can become aware of where bias is affecting us and what we can do to reduce its influence to ensure we treat everyone fairly and equitably and make objective decisions. Contact us today to find out how our DEI programmes can help address bias in your organisation.