6 biases you don’t know you have
NYU assistant professor Adam Alter takes a look at the biases and hidden forces behind some of our decision-making in his new book, Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. It’s an easily digestible journey through some of the shadowy areas of our subconscious – more Gladwell than Kahneman in style and tone.
Inspired by Alter’s book, here are six biases that may be affecting your day-to-day professional life.
1. Name bias
“Names are far more important than we might assume based only on intuition,” Alter writes. There are some ugly undercurrents to name bias – as we recently saw yet again in the viral story about a man who found it much easier to get a job as “Mr. Kim O’Grady” than merely “Kim O’Grady” – but there are also some unconscious biases at work.
For instance, you’re statistically more likely to donate to disaster relief if you share a first letter of your name with the disaster; people with K-names donated 150% more to Hurricane Katrina than previous disasters, and the results are consistent across other hurricanes.
If your last name starts with a letter near the end of the alphabet, you are statistically more likely to act quickly when presented with a limited opportunity (“free pizza in the break room”) – in part because you are conditioned to waiting your turn in roll calls and classrooms.
2. Symbolic bias
Our brains are constantly collecting data. Even when we’re “focused,” we’re processing information from the periphery – and that can have a direct impact on our work output. Research teams briefly exposed to the Apple logo before tackling a creative task were shown to definitively outperform teams exposed to the IBM logo.
“Merely exposing people to a symbol that implies creativity for less than a tenth of a second can cause them to think more creatively, even when they have no idea that they’ve seen the symbol,” Alter says. In other words, even if you’re doing all the right things to groom yourself for inspirational and collaborative magic, your efforts may be diminished by exterior forces you don’t even notice.
Exposure to meaningful symbols – flags or religious symbols, for example – can have a powerful impact on everything from morale to decision-making. If you have a healthy company culture, your very own logo may inspire goodwill and remind employees of your mission statement.
3. Geographical bias
People tend to think that northbound commutes are worse than southbound commutes. Why? Because southerly journeys feel “downhill” to us.
4. Hypocritical bias
We are quick to judge colleagues – and especially strangers – harshly for their (relatively) minor transgressions like leaving old food in the office refrigerator or double-parking in the company lot. Our brain is very, very good at tricking ourselves into pointing fingers while simultaneously justifying or excusing similar behavior from ourselves or our inner circles.
5. Competitive bias
When we’re able to compare our so-called good deeds to the deeds of our neighbors or officemates, we’re more likely to work harder for those accomplishments; homeowners who see how their utility usage compares to the neighborhood norm are more likely to take steps to actually reduce their usage. Few people would cite competitiveness as the main influence behind their shorter showers and reduced AC hours – “I’m trying to save the environment” would be a more popular explanation – but it’s demonstrably a key factor.
6. Confirmation bias
This happens famously in politics (especially in this age of niche audiences), but it happens in the workplace as well: we seek out people who validate our own opinions, then, as the seemingly unanimous “evidence” mounts, we start thinking of our opinions as “facts.” This can be especially poisonous in companies with departmental silos; if the director of Department X thinks Department Y is the scapegoat and there is little meaningful cross-departmental interaction, you can bet that the feeling will spread (and be affirmed).