Bias in decision-making: 3 traits to watch out for

    ‘I’m not sure how he’d fit in. He sounds different.’ That was the comment that sealed the meeting and the individual assessed was never brought back… I think back to moments like that often and wonder how outcomes could have been different if more time was spent on recognising one’s prejudices and possible other directions in decision-making.

    We make choices every minute, every day about everything that passes through our mind, from what to wear to an important meeting and if we should answer a text message to how fast we should drive down the highway. The question to consider is how rational are our decision-making processes? Biases are part and parcel of our behaviour and decisions, most of which are unconscious thought patterns. So, if we acknowledge our many biases, can we improve our assessment of situations and ultimate decisions?

    Here are three common biases to watch out for:

    1. The Halo effect

    It’s true that first impressions influence our perceptions of people and situations, just like the individual whose voice and intonations spilled over into a subtle assessment of his character and abilities. From one’s physical appearance to one’s body language, lasting judgements are made in seconds.

    In communications and marketing, we often pick brand ambassadors to help influence our audience’s decisions. An endorsement by the right celebrity can have amazing effects for an organisation’s reputation or a product’s value.

    But what can we do to tackle possible bias? Try to look beyond appearances. Break down your feelings about individuals or situations and re-consider them through an alternative lens. Ask more questions. Has so-and-so truly demonstrated the right capabilities to manage the proposed merger? Does so-and-so present a valid perspective, or have appearances influenced our choice?

    2. Confirmation Bias

    Everyone of us is attracted to opinions that mirror, or confirm, our own. That means that we tend to ignore opposing or challenging views. As a result, two people of differing schools of thought may interpret the same issue very differently… This is a great argument for the importance of diversity in communities.

    Thus, despite the availability of exactly the same reporting and analysis, an investment in a particular industry may look attractive to the team member familiar with that industry, but appear obscure and risky to another team member whose particular background has led them to be skeptical and negative to all associations with that industry.

    Working alone, it’s easier to make bad choices. Each one of us tends to interpret information to support our pre-existing beliefs and stereotypes. That’s why it’s important to pick broad-ranging teams and to listen to differing views and points of information.

    3. Anchoring

    The first information you learn about something often becomes your anchor or reference in your decision-making process. This can range from the first price offered for a purchase to a legal opinion. People will then usually make choices that don’t depart greatly from the knowledge first gained however irrelevant, ignoring more divergent views or data.

    So, if the first legal position you were provided was based on limited information, it can still become the anchor from which your subsequent perceptions and actions are taken. For example, company X was presented as a risk due to senior personnel changes leading  to an expectation of a state of change and investment delays. Later, although more information was revealed about the necessity of the staff replacements and new legal opinions were offered, investor intransigence remained.

    What can you do to avoid similar situations? Always ask yourself: how was my choice made? Was sufficient information available when the initial judgement or opinion was formed? Are there other angles to consider, away from the first reasoning brought forward? Has a comprehensive process of due diligence been undertaken?

    Bias is inherent in human choices. It can lead to avoidable mistakes in judgement. Awareness of our limitations, therefore, is the first step to balanced, and better decision-making.

    Critical thinking is the underpinning however, for analysis of all situations at hand. This isn’t easy especially when faced with the need to act quickly. We just need to remind ourselves to question our choices and to have them questioned by others so that we can make more informed decisions and not fall prey to cognitive bias.

    Suha Mubarak Matar
    Head of Communications & Public Affairs


    The views expressed in the blogs are solely those of the author. This does not represent the views of Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company or any of its portfolio companies.