Bias. It’s a word we hear more and more every day in our workplace, in the media, and in our communities. When we hear “bias,” it automatically seems like a negative thing. If we have a bias, that must mean that we are prejudiced.
Let’s change that line of thought by distinguishing between conscious and unconscious bias. Conscious bias is an intentional act in favor or against one thing, person, idea, or group compared with another, usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair or unjustified. This is typically what we think of when we hear the word “bias.” Unconscious bias, however, is an unrecognized mental process or categorization that is intimately tied to cognitive heuristics and how the human brain processes information. The fact is that if you have a brain, you have bias.
The brain uses bias to protect us—both to literally keep us safe from harm and to process the onslaught of information our brains are dealing with at any one time. The brain navigates 11 million bits of information at any moment, although the conscious brain can only take in 50 bits of information. The distance between 50 and 11 million is where unconscious bias resides. We develop mental shortcuts to do everyday activities, and cognitive biases are the result. With advances in neuroscience, social psychology, and biology, 200+ cognitive biases have been named.
Even though cognitive biases are universal, they are not neutral. They can easily lead to social biases in how we interact with each other and can be the seeds of institutional biases. Understanding cognitive biases gives us the tools to identify our patterns and our role in perpetuating them. In the workplace, mitigating cognitive biases helps improve decision-making in team environments, promote intellectual curiosity, attain and retain top talent, improve performance, increase innovation, strengthen relationships, and infuse social justice into business practices.
In my research, I’ve identified five cognitive biases that are the most common in the workplace, each focusing on a different way that we learn and how we make and use categories. They form the acronym LEAAP: Like-Me, Egocentric, Availability, Anchoring, and Proximity.
We like people who are like us. We know this to be true in our everyday interactions. In making small talk with someone we have just met, we are looking for connections so that our brain can rapidly place them into an in-group or an out-group. Our brain tries to determine who is a threat and who is an ally, and it makes this decision on limited information. This shortcut can provide a sense of comfort and security. However, it also means that we overvalue people who we think are like us (and undervalue people who we think are not like us).
For attorneys, the Like-Me Bias might show up in who works on a case, who gets hired, who is promoted, and who becomes a partner. For instance, although women have made up more than 40% of law school graduates since the mid-1980s, they are only 21.5% of firm partners, and law firms (especially at the levels of leadership and decision-making) are still predominantly white. The Like-Me Bias can easily lead to establishing informal or formal hiring, collaboration, and promotion practices that further entrench this bias into the governance structure of a firm.
Egocentric Bias is the belief that “my ideas are obvious and absolute.” Egocentric Bias can occur when we overvalue experience and assume understanding from others. This bias is very common in fields where expertise is necessary, like law or medicine. For attorneys, this is the most common of the cognitive biases. It is easy for attorneys to overvalue their own experience and their own area of expertise because this expertise is often what they are paid for. To best represent their clients, however, attorneys must put aside their egocentric bias and look at multiple points of view in order to make their own arguments stronger.
This occurs when decisions are made based on easy or incomplete ideas without looking for the fuller picture. This bias increases when we are in a rush or are under a high cognitive load. For most attorneys, this happens every day and all the time, managing complex details and tight deadlines. When Availability Bias is in full effect, we take the path of least resistance, and as a result, we make unintentional errors. This might show up as confirmation bias, where only looking at information that underscores what we already know, or the halo effect, where we let positive qualities in one area influence our overall perception of someone. For attorneys, small errors can lead to large consequences. For example, consider the impact of overlooking important details, citing inaccurate facts in a court filing, or missing a deadline. Mitigating this strategy means allowing time to consider various points of view and to approach things from different perspectives.
With Anchoring Bias, decisions are made from the initial data point, graph, or image that we receive. Once we have this first reference point (whether the reference is factually accurate or not), we calibrate all other information against it. While most lawyers are taught to be skeptical and to critically question the first piece of information, jurors are not. From the voir dire questions to the opening argument, trial attorneys use Anchoring Bias to shape jurors’ opinions and to bias them in favor of their client’s case or body of evidence. While Anchoring Bias is an unconscious process, it is often used intentionally by attorneys.
When we unconsciously favor whoever is closest in time or space while undervaluing those in remote locations. This bias can impact people who work remotely or who work in multiple office locations where one location is perceived as the headquarters. Proximity Bias can even occur within a single office. Law firms often adhere to a prescribed hierarchy in which attorneys are assigned the more and less desirable offices on the more and less desirable floors. While this may be viewed as a way to reward hard work and confer status, these distinctions will also activate Proximity Bias, and could impact to whom partners assign prestigious (and less prestigious) work, which in turn impacts which associate attorneys are more actively mentored and promoted to partner. In addition, this bias can lead to poor decision-making on behalf of clients because decisions come from a more limited perspective.
To mitigate Proximity Bias for meetings where some participants are physically present and others participate remotely, those in the same physical space need to actively structure the meeting to include the people joining remotely. This could involve assigning a specific role for those who are remote. We assume that joining remotely will have the same impact as being there in person, and that is rarely the case.
Attorneys need to recognize that their clients have these same biases. While the actual work may be the same whether conducted on the phone or in person, the impact on the client may be very different. In one firm, when they relocated to a different zip code in order to increase office space, they had fewer client visits, even though it was the same attorneys doing the same work.
Although we’ve discussed all of these biases in isolation, in real life they intersect and multiply their impact. These unconscious mental processes dictate our decisions and determine who we interact and form relationships with. The behaviors within these relationships are where we can begin to measure the impact of social biases (race, gender, age, culture). Over time, these social biases become institutionalized as we consciously or unconsciously decide how we are going to govern ourselves in and out of the workplace.
In a recent study, 60 partners were asked to give a writing score to the same memo which had 22 errors in it, ranging from grammatical errors to errors in the analysis of fact. While a small sample size, these attorneys gave the same memo different scores depending on whether they were told that the author was African-American or Caucasian. Partners found fewer errors for the white author and praised him for his potential, while the comments for the black author were more critical of his work. In this study, we see Like-Me and Availability biases in action. Since writing analysis is a common part of the hiring process, we can see how this score would easily influence who gets hired, and if hired, what work they get assigned.
Because most of our decisions are influenced by unconscious biases, we must clarify which cognitive biases appear in our thoughts and actions at the workplace. Mitigating cognitive biases requires the ability to question our decision-making processes, to examine our relationships and interactions, and to identify and change the social and institutional barriers which are obstacles to fostering inclusion and social justice.
About the Author
Matthew J. Cahill is the president of The Percipio Company, a consulting company providing bias mitigation and inclusive workplace consulting. Contact him on Twitter @matthewjcahill.