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).

Adam McKibbin
Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.

5 Responses to 6 biases you don’t know you have

  1. BrochureBuilders.com

    “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”

    Actually… That should be under gender bias. Not name bias. But try getting a white collar job with the first name, Bubba. Good luck.

    • Central Desktop

      Thanks for the comment. As Alter describes in more detail in his book, there are numerous ugly (and sometimes unconscious) biases that are tied to names, including race-based and gender-based biases, as well as the regional and class biases that may have made “Bubba Clinton” (his actual nickname) sound like a less qualified candidate to some than “Bill Clinton” (or “William Jefferson Clinton”).

  2. Reed

    Great post Adam,

    I’ve always been extremely interested in how the behaviors of others affect our own actions. I worked in bars for the four years of my college life and my favorite thing to do was monitor bar patrons social habits. Competitive bias took abundance:

    A woman would be sitting at the bar by herself having a quiet business day lunch and no one would bother chatting with her. As soon as I (bartender) or another patron sparked conversation with her, immediately you’d see the bar fill up or at least the amount of people attempting to talk to her. I could pin this as guys looking to pick up a woman, but the same thing would happen in switched gender roles.

    Do you think this has to do with levels of comfort also? Meaning since someone made the first move to talk, now it’s a safe bet?

    Thanks for the awesome insight.

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