Overcoming Bias: I’ll Have the Usual, or….? Or, what?

It may have started with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink as the first significant address of the topic, but examples and discussions of bias are all over social and traditional media. In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow he examines two systems in how we think:

  1. fast, emotional, intuitive;
  2. slower, more intentional, more logical.

While system 1 can be quick and powerful, it also exposes faults and biases. In other words, you use your intuition or system 1, to come up with the wrong conclusions, when you should be deferring to system 2, reasoning, to come up with a better resolution. Fast thinking’s influence on our thoughts and behavior can be due to a number of reasons including being more heavily invested in loss aversion than desiring to achieve a gain, or overconfidence in believing you know more about the situation than you really do. What about if you chose not to rely on old patterns or information and chose to order something different from the “menu” rather than our old standby?

The question is how to avoid being led by your habit for the same thing, all the time. First, you have to be aware of it. Mindful. In order to do this, take a few minutes before making a decision, paying close attention to a circumstance when you have to form a judgement. Confront your natural response. Acknowledge it. Now, challenge yourself, forcing yourself to be open to possibilities. Think about “how could taking a step in another direction potentially benefit or reward me and others and how could it potentially harm me and others?” This means breaking away from comfort while being fully aware that you cannot grow from always taking the same path; do you want to learn or do you want to resist an opportunity to gain knowledge? Next, mull over your conclusion, what is it based on – reality or norms? Revisit the facts. Then, move forward being fully aware of the process and embrace your decision.

How do you take this concept and make it a reality? Here’s an example within hiring that concerns gender bias. There is a natural societal tendency when evaluating and comparing people of different sexes for the same position toward using different criteria - judging a male on his potential to grow into a job whereas judging a female solely on her work experience. The same goes into contemplating engaging a vendor or consultant – there are different criteria for evaluating men than women, even though both may be equally capable.

A female CEO of a tech company, understanding the unconscious preconceived notion, has encouraged her employees to avoid it – to “level the playing field”; to actually consider women who have the potential to learn and grow into the position, and have the drive, personality, and intelligence to learn in the same light as the men with the same criteria. Then compare those people. The chosen then fits for their existing skills and their potential rather than gender.

Another widely held but hidden prejudice in hiring is against females of child bearing years and women who already have children. Questions or assumptions are made about these women not being serious about their careers or career growth because of children or potential children exerting influence over the female’s lives, expecting years full of work challenges. Often unlawful questions are put to women during interviewing that would never be asked of men even though we are well into the 21st century, not the 1950’s.

Recognizing caregivers or main caregivers are not limited to females any more, wakes us up to conquering unfairness in this instance. There are many same sex couple parents and men who prefer child rearing, and women who don’t want to have children. How to get around this is to take these assumptions out of the process and ponder that all people, regardless of age, may or may not have children or elderly family members in their lives who will be a priority at some point in time. As the population ages, this is a fact.

Here’s another hiring predisposition, taking gender completely out of the situation. Envision filling a position beyond entry level. Hiring decision-makers often demand that it’s crucial to find someone with that same job title at another company, or with the same experience. Most people’s preference is toward bringing in those who have done an extremely similar job before. However, with technology pushing quicker changes, a better equipped professional to lead around the changes has to be someone who is more broadly prepared than before, who can think and act more agilely, deftly and fast to react to today’s challenges; they can’t have siloed experience in one function (a reason for praising Millennials who switch jobs and companies to gather different experience).

A better solution to fill the position is to list the skills, qualities and attributes that the individual in the role would need in order to be most effective in that position. Then to hire the person who fits that criteria. (My previous experiences in executive search, I did not have many clients who were open-minded in this respect).

Here’s a final example of selective tendencies, to move from business to leisure time: entertainment. There are long standing media tendencies to expect an audience will only identify with or be attracted to characters who resemble the audience (except when it comes to white males, which entertainment companies feel everyone identifies with). The media business is reluctant to change its old habits.

Following that logic, Black Panther, Superwoman, Alice in Wonderland, Hamilton, Aladdin, Harold and Kumar, Rey in the Star Wars stories, etc. would only lure a small audience of those who physically resemble the lead character. In actuality, one doesn’t have to go very far to see that these protagonists have a much broader attraction and that most people are broader minded than publishing agents, journalists, film editors and distributors, if you give us a chance.

Gathering all the examples together, while bias exists, (everyone has their preferences) it does not have to rule our lives. Taking extra time and using fair criteria to make a decision can benefit everyone, especially you. Your question is “what is my agenda? Do I want to take a chance or be complacent? I want to be limited or limitless?” It is up to you as an individual to make these choices. It is not a forgone conclusion. It is a choice. Everything is a choice. “I’ll have the unusual”.


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