How to thrive in such a biased world?

Author: Çiğdem Tongal

Barnum Effect, Decision Fatigue, Gambler’s Fallacy … the list goes on and on. Countless psychological experiments explain the reasons why we cannot trust our reason solely. We have incredible inherent biases that most of us are blind to. Here is an exhaustive list, which may or may not cause an “anxiety effect.”

Yet every day, we keep on making decision after decision every single minute: whether it is what to eat (Still not using Uber Eats?), which task to prioritize (Hail to Asana), which route to take (I do not remember how I drove to place before Yandex) or whether to tie the knot with that significant other? (Hey, Apple, is there an app for that?)

In a world full of biases, how can we keep on keeping on?

What is a psychological bias?

A psychological or, more precisely, a cognitive bias is the phenomenon arguing that human beings tend to behave in an unprecedented manner. Our actions cannot always be categorized as “rational” or “logical” given the circumstances. These seemingly “illogical” acts boil down to the human being’s capacity to judge specific inputs/data/worldviews from a subconscious point of view and then take action based on that misinterpreted data.

Organizations being made up of humans, against all the processes and structures and enhanced workflows to avoid mishaps, will end up facing the consequences of those strategic decisions every single minute.

So, what to do?

Here is some food for thought to pave the way for better judgment, decision making, or way of working to disrupt a biased organization. These recipes may not give you a full chef’s menu, but they certainly would provide you with the sweet taste of making your organization a better place for all.

Bon appetite!

Course 1/Hors d’oeuvre:

Petit data bites with side salad freshly picked from the local market

Data is great. In fact, it is so great we are all fascinated by an ‘increase of %60’ or an ‘average of 4.7 out 5’, or simply by the phrase “statistically significant.”

This is not just the case for quantitative data of course. We make sense of the world from narratives, stories unite us. It does not matter whether they are true or false as long as you relate with them. And there is no other ingredient that spices up a story as much as qualitative data or verbatims.

Obviously, the main point here is not to say “don’t make use of any data”; on the contrary, use it but don’t end up in the pitfall of making it the aim.*

Why do you collect data in the first place? To understand. And to really understand and respect what the data says, you have to see beyond your biased interpretations. (e.g. Confirmation Bias, Anchoring Bias, Clustering Illusion)

Sometimes an apple is just an apple, nothing more, nothing less. Use data but do not bend it to fit your decision.

Course II/Appetizer:

Aged assumptions topped with crispy illusions

Assumptions. We all make them. That’s how we have survived and thrived as a species. From the moment we were born, we make assumptions. Sometimes they are intuitively learned for survival. “If I touch a burning pan, it will hurt.” or “This food smells bad so it might kill me.” Sometimes they are socially constructed and become lighthouses for determining a life trajectory. “If I graduate from college, my chances of getting a job will be higher,” “If I invest a million dollars on this new high tech start-up I will be one of the cool guys.

Up until today, our assumptions have been significant in our decision-making, so much so that it may have all blinded us from a simple truth we need to remind ourselves: “There might be another way.” One of the critical problems arising from assumptions is that we become fixated on the obvious paths and hinder our process or creativity or novel ways to think. (e.g. Default Effect, Unconscious Bias)

This is especially true for social project management. We assume on behalf of the beneficiary, considering that the X intervention or the Y scholarship would eventually create the impact we desire. However, it might not be.

Sometimes the solution is so simple. The key is to find the right people to ask. Getting feedback from your employees about their needs and wants, conducting a needs assessment before jumping to conclusions, or having a user experience test during a product prototype phase will be worth every penny. Especially if you don’t want your initiative to become a considerable source of disappointment. Don’t be glim, it could also become the center point for your narrative at a ‘TED talk’; we always learn from experience.

Talk to people, get their opinion on every scale you can to test your assumptions to guide your way.

Course 3/Main Course:

Chef’s specialty: The Elephant in the Room (You need to see it to eat it)

If it does not make sense to you, it probably does not make sense to anyone. We all know of processes that do not make sense, a “thing” is done in a certain way because it has always been done like that, investments that no one can reasonably explain why we go forward with it, or sometimes we are even unaware of why we were invited to a meeting in the first place. Sometimes you pick up an unspoken consensus over, let’s say, a cultural ritual. You feel that it no longer serves anybody a favor, is a simple waste of time, and people drag themselves to it.

Yet, nobody questions that way of working let alone think about the reason why it is done. That ritual eventually will become a source of resentment for all but no one speaks up, because at a certain point in time it was decided to be that way. (e.g. Irrational Escalation, Bandwagon Effect)

And we go along with it till we burn out, then blame everything on the “system” as if the system is a ghost haunting everyone and nothing can be done about it. (well at least to my knowledge ghost-busters are fictional characters)

If you spot the elephant in the room, you need to address it. Otherwise, you keep continuing the wheel to the point where it breaks you.

Course 4/The dessert:

Nostalgia Sorbet

“Back in my days, we used to do this, we couldn’t do that. Oh, you will learn the hard way.”

Not exactly a pep talk right?

Sometimes our experiences or thinking that we already know things because we have accumulated knowledge along the way can be a total buzzkill. Fortunately, the experience is overrated, but it is also underrated. It is overrated thinking that experience can be the sole reason why a person’s insights, suggestions, or way of working can be trusted foolhardy. (e.g. Authority Bias)

Yet, it is also underrated when it comes to making your own decisions. Much like assumptions that have saved you from getting food poisoning or making sure that you get that degree, your experiences have allowed you to test and learn. Like a dessert on the menu, your experiences can make you leave the table with a nice taste or else hinder the whole meal just because you served a bad course at the end. Do not underestimate your experience but also make sure that it is not your sole point of reference.