The Side Effects of Perception Bias

Bias is our tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone. Everyone (in one way or another) is biased. You may be thinking to yourself “there is no way I am biased.” Sorry to break the news, but it’s true. We all have an opinion on something, which isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. However, too much bias can come at a cost. Personal biases can get in the way of rational thinking and can become hurdles in your work and everyday life. As a leader especially, it’s important to turn off your subjective way of thinking in order to achieve the right results.

Let’s begin with heuristics.

Our bias begins at the cognitive level. In the 1950s, Nobel-prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon aimed to understand what it is exactly that impacts the process of decision making for humans. He suggested that human judgement is affected by our cognitive limitations. Because of these limitations on our rational way of thinking, humans resort to ‘mental shortcuts’ in order to make decisions quickly and easily. These shortcuts are known as heuristics.

We use heuristics to reduce effort, to simplify and speed up the decision-making process. Heuristics play a huge role in our everyday decision making and problem solving and many of us resort to using these shortcuts in order to come to a solution quickly. There are many types of heuristic ways of thinking, including:

  • Representativeness heuristic: this is when you compare someone or something to a past example you experienced with similar attributions. As an example, if you’re trying to decide if someone is a hard worker, you will quickly sift through your memory of people you’ve met with similar features or traits and make the decision based on that.
  • Availability heuristic: this is when you recall and rely on past information or experience to help you make a decision. Let’s say you’re deciding whether you should bike to work or take your car instead. But last week you read in the news that someone was in an accident involving someone riding their bike, therefore you decide to take your car.
  • Affect heuristic: this is when you allow emotions to take part in your decision making. If you’re in a happier mood, you’re more likely to focus on the positive outcomes of a decision. If you’re in a sad or angry mood. You’re more likely to focus on the negative outcomes of a decision.

Now, how does all of this lead to bias? Well, when we try to speed up the process of something, it usually creates more room for error. With the first example above, there is no way of concluding that someone is going to be a hard worker just by comparing their personality to people you know with similar traits. There is also no way of predicting what will happen if you choose to ride your bike to work, just because someone else was in an accident. When we pull examples from our experience or knowledge to make decisions without insufficient research, we are introducing bias. Subjective thinking can keep us from making rational decisions which can in turn influence how we grow throughout the years of our lives.

How do you reduce bias?

The first step in reducing this bias, is to recognize it. Many of us make subjective decisions unconsciously every day. Sometimes heuristics can be helpful. For example, you need to wake up earlier for work tomorrow but you’re not sure what time you should set your alarm for. You know the last time you had to wake up early, you accidentally shut off your alarm and went back to sleep. Therefore, you decide to set a couple of alarms to ensure you will wake up on time – that is a type of availability heuristic which can be pretty helpful. However, subjectively thinking all the time can limit your knowledge and instead of answering life’s more difficult questions, you opt for the easy way out. When you recognize your bias, you can train yourself to pause for a second and ask yourself the following:

  • Why am I coming to this conclusion?
  • Is it the most rational decision I can make?
  • Do I have enough evidence and information to come to this conclusion?

Be objective

Looking at things objectively when possible is an effective way to minimize perception bias. We think subjectively because it’s easier than asking ourselves complex questions and less time consuming than gathering knowledge beforehand. However, before we judge someone on how hard-working they are, have you seen them work before? Do you know what their work ethic is like? Do you know the person well enough to make that decision? Before you decide to take your car to work, have you ever been injured riding your bike to work? Is it rational to assume that because someone else was injured riding their bike, that the same thing will happen to you as well?

Perceptual biases are a natural way of life. As humans, we created biases to help us develop answers to questions we don’t understand. Without certain biases and heuristics, it can make decision making near impossible but overly relying on them can also leave us stuck in negative cycles or patterns that we have trouble seeing our way out of. Biases shape us and make us who we are. But biases can have both positive and negative impacts. If we think subjectively too often, we will isolate ourselves and, in some cases, create unhealthy biases such as prejudices and stereotypes. Be aware of your bias because that is the only way you can minimize it when making important decisions. The more you do this, the more likely you are to make solid, objective and accurate decisions allowing yourself to reach new heights.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” – Robertson Davies