The Perils of Bias and Self-deception

Most leaders in private would probably admit that their decisions have more than a smidgen of ‘gut feeling’, even though in business the cultural norm is that of the rational animal.

This piece flags up the perils of ignoring the science behind unconscious bias. Accepting that as decision-makers we are constantly subject to a variety of unconscious bias is important because it impacts:

  • How we assess risk;
  • The acceptance of advice;
  • The ability to process facts objectively;
  • Giving or withholding support to others;
  • How we recruit or overlook talent; and
  • How we promote people or hold them back.

A survival imperative is that we automate decision-making in order to maintain efficiency. Decisiveness is, after all, a respected quality in leaders. What that means is that we often resort to past patterns and experiences which allow us to make quick decisions based on generalisations.

For example, we may use stereotypes about others: German equals ‘rational’ or Asian equals ‘disciplined’. Uncritically, we may then believe that our stereotypes – our organising principles – are reality because our thoughts and actions affirm and reaffirm them.

This coupled with another evolutionary trait – self-deception – makes it possible to make rapid decisions. Research has established that self-deception is central to our fight-or-flight response as well as the habit-forming processes of the brain. From self-deception to lying is no line at all given that the aim is to gain an evolutionary advantage. Lying, like self-deception, reduces our chances of being caught out.

Gomes describes self-deception and lying rather charmingly as ‘the social equivalent of camouflage’. When we believe our lies, we also avoid their consequences. A man’s declaration of ‘I love you’ can meet a short-term objective without the messy long-term question of commitment. When we are unaware of our lies, we are also unencumbered by the truth. And as I reflect, these unconscious biases are so often the crux of bad decisions in relationships.

Gomes offers many examples that touch on professional judgment. If you are prepared to face up to the fact that you have unconscious biases and may be unwilling or unable to confront them, he offers a couple of ways to improve your awareness:

  • Accept that you are NOT rational but inherently biased;
  • Pay more attention to what you’re doing (for example, judges take very detailed notes to separate fact from emotion); and
  • If you disagree with the evidence presented in this article or feel that you are above unconscious bias, you are probably experiencing ‘reactance’, natural if you feel someone is trying to constrain your freedom to choose or ‘blind spot bias’.

As a leader making critical decisions, can you afford to deceive yourself that you are immune?

Source: Gomes, J. (2013) Cultivating the Craft of Judgement. Training Journal. March 2013, pp.39-43.


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