All your decisions are biased!  This is a simple fact that we all need to get more used to.  If we don’t we are in danger of allowing a lot of automatic, and often unhelpful, patterns of thinking influence the major decisions we make. This could be anything from recruiting for a key role in our business or choosing a key supplier, to making a critical strategic decision or voting in an election.  However, these thinking traps also blur the hundreds of tiny decisions we make every day. 

If you have a brain, you are biased.  This curious aspect of our thinking (I like to call them Thinking Traps) is a fundamental part of who we are but it was developed over millennia as a survival strategy while we were still hunter-gatherers.  The world we live in has changed a bit since then but our brains are still using the same patterns of thought. 

The danger is very real
As anyone who has ever attempted a diet will know it can take a lot of effort to change our patterns of thinking or behaviour.  The danger of allowing your biases to trap your thinking and your decision-making is very real.  I frequently meet Directors and Managers who have made poor recruitment decisions because they let their biases influence them.  There are also many stories of Boards of Directors allowing their common biases to make decisions that lead their business to ruin.  Just remember the thinking that led to the Global Financial Crises, not to mention the recent election results that may well harm the very people who voted for their preferred candidate or referendum result. 

The good news is that Neuro and Behavioural Scientists are conducting lots of fascinating experiments that shine a light on our thinking.  This exciting field is still very new and fresh discoveries are being made every week.  I love the way that science is now catching up with a lot of ancient wisdom.  Wise teachers have been saying for thousands of years that we should practice more self-awareness and mindfulness so we can have a richer and fuller life with more joy and peace of mind.  Now the scientists are coming to the same conclusions.  They are conducting experiments that show how fallible we are and that we have a number of automatic heuristics (simple and quick rules-of-thumb) that we use because it is an efficient way to think.  

The brain loves efficiency
The brain loves efficiency and as part of its fundamental survival strategy it avoids exerting unnecessary effort on difficult decisions or concepts.  This goes back to conserving energy for survival.  However, we now live in a very complex world that requires lots of decisions on a daily basis - from responding to emails to filtering the vast amount of information that is threatening to drown us while yelling that everything is urgent and important and that we’ll miss out if we don’t do this or that.  So it’s not surprising that we are all trying to make efficient decisions and stay on top of things. 

David Rock and his team spend a lot of time reading through the vast amount of experiments the scientists are writing about and filter out some of the most useful bits that we can utilise in our day to day work.  The scientists refer to the efficient decision-making or heuristics mentioned above as ‘Unconscious Bias’, and have labelled about 150 of them.  This is not particularly helpful because it is too many.  However, Rock and his team have put them into five distinct categories that make them more manageable. 

Not only are these categories useful to remember, there are some tips for each so you can counter the natural urge that your brain has to jump to conclusions and make poor decisions. 

Over the coming weeks I will go through each one but here is a quick overview.  They can be remembered by the mnemonic SEEDS.  

An overview of The Five Thinking Traps
1. Similarity – this is about thinking that people like you are better.  The antidote is to find commonality with people who are different to us.  

2. Expedience – this bias is about the availability of information and the ease with which we can confirm it.  The antidote is to consider all the information available and seek alternative perspectives even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  

3. Experience – this bias is created when we are surrounded by people who have the same experience as us and we all quickly reach the same conclusion.  It also happens when we make assumptions about the behaviour of others because of how it makes us feel.  The antidote to this is to get different perspectives from alternative sources and give others the benefit of the doubt. 

4. Distance – this bias is about proximity and how we give something that is closer to us in time or space more importance.  The antidote is to remove distance from the equation or play with ‘what if’ scenarios that are far closer or far more distant in time or space. 

5.  Safety – this is about the feelings of personal loss or threat to our security. The antidote is to create some psychological distance from the situation, for example; consider what you would say or what advice you would give to someone close to you in a similar situation. 

Look out for my next article which will go into one of the above in more detail and give you more tips on how you can avoid the thinking trap by practicing the antidote. 

Remember, especially as you make decisions . . . stay curious! 

With best regards,

David Klaasen

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