5 tips for breaking your bias
Updated: Mar 12
Break the bias. The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 envisions a world that is inclusive and equitable, free from prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination.
A worthy campaign, International Women’s Day draws attention to the negative impact of biases against women. But, perhaps, it also raises a flag about biases in general. The fact is that we all hold biases. It’s literally how we’re wired.
Are you up for trying a brain exercise with me?
If so, imagine this with your mind’s eye.
You’re racing to catch a flight. You make your way through security, race down the hallway, and reach the gate. After being cleared at the gate, you run down the breezeway and board the plane just before the flight attendant closes the door. There, the pilot steps out from the cockpit to say hello.
Now that you’ve got this mental image, let me ask you something.
Was the pilot a woman?
There is no right or wrong answer to the question, but if you were surprised that the pilot is a woman, it may reflect a bias.
What bias is
Each of us makes thousands of decisions a day, and biases are mental shortcuts that help us in our decision-making. A bias is neither good nor bad. It just tells us something about how our brains work.
In simple terms, our brain is a complex system that is constantly working to record, analyze and make connections between stimuli. It doesn’t have to work quite as hard when things are familiar and it can make shortcuts. As a result, we look for and notice those things that are familiar. For example, if I’m familiar with pilots being men, when I create a mental image of the scenario described above, I picture the pilot to be a man.
The Cognitive Bias Codex shows more than 180 known biases. Here are three examples:
Confirmation bias - When we’re faced with too much information, we may be drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs, like when we buy a new car and seem to notice our make and model everywhere we go. Our confirmation bias tells us that, since a lot of people seem to drive the same car, we’ve chosen a popular model.
Authority bias - When we lack meaning, we stereotype and generalize. Our authority bias causes us to follow the instructions of the police officer that is directing us to take a detour because we defer to their authority.
Status quo bias – When we want to avoid mistakes or maintain the status of a group, we may feel resistant to changes. Our status quo bias helps us avoid perceived risks.
The good and the bad when it comes to bias
Biases make decision-making easier because they give us a starting point, or prediction, about what to expect.
For example, I know that I am biased towards receiving medical advice from a doctor rather than from someone without medical training who posts advice on the Internet. My experience with doctors contributes to this bias.
But are our biases a good thing or a bad thing?
A problem may arise when we rely on our expectations—our biases—and they surprise us. (Remember the pilot?) We can run into problems if our bias means we’re relying on faulty information in our decision-making or if our bias cannot be generalized beyond a particular situation.
Consider a situation where you’re recruiting someone. You learn that the candidate attended the same university and grew up in the same city as you. An affinity bias may lead you to favour a decision to hire this individual because they are somewhat “like you.” This may result in overlooking other more qualified candidates and, ultimately, a poor hiring decision.
The graphic below highlights some of the ways in which biases are “good” and “bad”—how they help us make decisions and how they also interfere with good decision-making.
5 tips for breaking your bias
We all hold biases. It’s just how we’re wired. So what can we do to prevent our biases from getting in the way of good decision-making?
Here are five tips for breaking biases that don’t serve you well.
Examine your thinking and behaviour: When you find yourself being dismissive of what your restaurant server is saying, ask yourself: is this how I would handle the interaction if this person looked more like me? Or sounded more like me? Challenge your thinking and assumptions about others.
Recognize and accept. Recognizing and accepting your bias about something or someone is the starting point towards overcoming a bias that has a negative effect on other people or the decisions you make.
Listen and consider other viewpoints: It’s not always easy to recognize our biases. Ask yourself and others: what am I missing here?
Reframe: Challenge your own viewpoints. Ask yourself: what is another way to look at this? Consider looking for a viewpoint or solution at the opposite side of the spectrum—sometimes referred to as “playing devil’s advocate.”
Pause: If you’re facing an important decision and want to protect yourself from the possible negative effects of your biases, take some time to do so. Don’t make big decisions under pressure. Or as David Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow says, “If there is time to reflect, slowing down is likely to be a good idea.”
What happens when we break the bias
When we each recognize and act to break those biases that don’t serve us well and which may also be harmful to others, two things may happen. First, we move another step closer to a more inclusive and equitable community, free from prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. Second, we are better able to make good decisions by using our enhanced and objective problem-solving skills.
If you started today, how would taking a look at your own biases make a difference to how you relate to others and how you make decisions?