Holly's Blog

Brain Biases: Tricks or Treats?


Do you believe in ghosts? If so, you’re not alone.

jack-o-lanternsIn fact, a recent Harris Poll reported that more than four out of 10 Americans believe in the spooky apparitions. It could be due to the fact that we’re all watching too many haunted house movies. Or, it could be a reflection of the way the human brain works.

By nature, humans are pattern loving, structure-seeking animals. We enjoy making connections to things even when they might not exist. More important, we want these structures and patterns to mean something, to help bring a sense of order to an increasingly chaotic world.

So we see faces in clouds and religious figures in our toast. We hear messages when records are played backwards. (For those of you old enough to remember, Paul is not dead.) And sometimes we really believe that we see ghosts.

Our need for structure doesn’t stop there. We cross our fingers and believe that something good will happen. We avoid crossing the paths of black cats. We don’t walk under ladders, although that one seems perfectly logical to me. Regardless of the superstition, they all go back to our strong cognitive bias to seek patterns and explain connections and causes.

Common Business Biases

In our personal lives, our biases serve us well in many ways. For example, it’s fun to enjoy some of them at Halloween. But be careful they don’t carry over into your business.

In the workplace, biases often get in the way of making good decisions and achieving the outcomes we want. Moreover, unless we make a conscious effort, we rarely notice them when they come into play. See if you recognize any of the following:

  • Bandwagon effect.  The tendency to do or believe things because other people do the same.
  • Confirmation bias.  The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms your preconceptions.
  • False consensus effect.  The tendency to overestimate the degree to which others agree with you. (All those head nods in the meeting really don’t mean they do).
  • Herd instinct.  The tendency to adopt the opinions of others and follow the behaviors of the majority in order to feel safer and avoid conflict.
  • Hindsight bias.  The inclination to see past events as being predictable.
  • Mere exposure effect.  The tendency to express undue dislike for something merely because you are not familiar with it.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy.  The tendency to engage in behaviors that elicit results that will consciously or unconsciously confirm your beliefs.
  • Status quo comfort.  The tendency to like things to stay relatively the same.

Overcoming the Bias for Action

Biases don’t necessarily produce negative outcomes in every situation, as long as we recognize and question them on a regular basis. The problem is that in the face of uncertainty – a defining characteristic of the current business environment – we tend to rely on the patterns and structures we’re most familiar with.  And we’re all running so fast we rarely take the time to see if they need replacing.

When you find yourself doing things the same way they’ve always been done, that’s a cue to step back and consider whether a new structure might make sense. If people in your organization walk around saying things like, “That’s just the way we do things around here” or “That won’t work in our industry,” that’s the time to pause and wonder why.

Interestingly, even some of our good biases can sometimes work against us. Take the bias for action – a trait highly esteemed in business leaders.

When faced with uncertainty, humans don’t like to sit and do nothing. In new or shaky circumstances, we feel compelled to do something. Afterwards we usually feel better, even if our actions made the situation worse. Yet, this bias is so deeply ingrained in our society that we tend to reward quick thinking and decisive action, even when the results don’t turn out well.

In today’s business world, we often have to make decisions without having all the data. But when faced with an unclear decision or situation, the more prudent course of action may be to pause for a moment and examine our biases. Then gather more data (or at least revisit the data we already have), and wait until we can more clearly assess our options.

Or, as I like to say…pause, think, focus, and then run. Just make sure you don’t cross paths with any black cats!

Call to action: Identify one bias about your customers or your business that’s overdue for an objective analysis. Then have your team discuss whether it’s time for a new one.

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