Picture the scene: dawn on the African plains, roughly 2 million years ago. One of your distant ancestors wakes and rises to his feet, preparing to walk down to the river to fetch water. As he leaves the safety of the clan cave he spots a brown shape behind a nearby bush. In the dim morning light it’s unclear what the shape is, and your ancestor’s brain instantly registers two likely options: a large brown boulder or a crouching saber-tooth cat. Then, just as instantly, your ancestor decides the brown shape must be a saber-tooth cat and dives for his spear. Why?
The caveman in our story made an assumption about the nature of the brown shape, not because he had received information that made that answer clear, but because his brain was programed to do so. Just as yours is. Early in our development as a species, humans developed an automatic assumption of the worst case scenario, not because it was cool to be pessimistic, but because it kept us alive. In our troglodyte cousin’s example, he assumed that the shape was a predator and dived for his spear. If the shape had turned out to be a rock after all, he might have felt a little embarrassed, but at least he would have been alive. In fact, he could have made the same mistake with the same reaction every day for a month and he would have been fine. But he would only once have to assume that the shape was a rock when it was in fact a big cat, for that to be the last mistake he ever made. So, our brains began to favor negative assumptions, because these kept us alive.
This primal hardwiring is called the negativity bias – one of the most powerful biases in a large collection of unconscious cognitive biases that our brains use to make quicker decisions. Receiving about 11 million bits of data every moment, but only capable of processing about 40, the human brain needs help making the thousands of decisions it’s asked to make every day. That help comes in the form of pre-programmed interpretations of the world around us that allow us to build on past experience and observed patterns in making faster decisions. These are called biases. Many of these biases are useful, but many more limit our ability to make optimal decisions. They lead to habitual thinking, even prejudiced thinking, that can prevent us from making optimal judgements about people and situations, impacting everything from who gets hired for a new job, to what washing machine we choose to buy (marketers are masters at using cognitive biases to manipulate consumers into specific purchasing outcomes).
Being aware of cognitive biases is an important first step in shining light on unconscious parts of our thinking, allowing us to bring more awareness and cognition to important questions, especially those regarding other people. When working with a job coach, much of the process will shed light on how these biases impact the success of your job search.
Here are 11 of the most important biases to watch for in yourself and others:
- Negativity bias
Already mentioned above, but the impact of this bias on your daily life cannot be underestimated. Since most of us no longer live in the wild or face dangerous predators on a daily basis, much of the need for this bias has disappeared. Yet it still drives much of our behaviour in stressful situations. The amygdala, central processing unit for the fight-flight-or-freeze response, dedicates two thirds of its neurons to processing negative assumptions, stimulated largely by our bias towards negativity and fear.
- Reward bias
Our willingness to take action when promised reward – possibly our most impactful bias after negativity. If negativity bias represents the stick, this bias represents the carrot. Reward bias is what hooks you into buying something when you see the words ‘FREE’ or ‘NEW’, and it’s the same bias that forms the basis of most employee incentive schemes.
The false belief that you knew something was going to happen, after you learned it was going to happen. Have you ever chosen a route to drive and hit a major traffic jam, only to think, ‘I knewI should have taken the other road!’ That’s hindsight bias.
- Confirmation bias
This is a big one and its effects are profound. Confirmation bias is actively listening to and trusting only information that confirms your pre-established beliefs. This is rampant in the age of internet, in which it is possible to find corroboration for almost any belief you may have. Confirmation bias is juice in the engine of fake news. This bias also shows up as atendency to believe something generally supported by your group or those around you: you believe something, everyone around you believes the same thing, therefore it must be true. Religious or strong cultural groups often unknowingly perpetuate this kind of bias.
- Misinformation bias
New information clouds or changes your memory of something you don’t remember clearly. A common example is police lineups, in which a witness who does not have a clear recollection of the perpetrator adjusts their memory based on the appearances of the suspects in the lineup. Another version of this happens when you’ve lost your car keys and you start to build an incontrovertible story in your mind about where you left them last, despite the fact that you eventually find them somewhere completely different.
Your willingness to believe people who are – or appear to be – experts on the topic. It’s why the actor in pharmaceutical commercials always wears a doctor’s coat and a stethoscope, and why an article can be lent almost instant credibility with the phrase, ‘scientists have shown…’
- Self-serving bias
Giving yourself credit for things that go right and blaming other people for things that go wrong. For example, the thoughts ‘I’m so smart’ when you’ve done well in an exam vs. ‘My teachers are so bad’ if you haven’t.
- Anchoring bias
Using an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgements. This is why first impressions stick in our brains disproportionately long and with greater intensity. This is used unrelentingly in product pricing and sales, but its greatest human impact is in the initial split second judgements we make about other people. As Gail Tolstoi-Miller says, it take an average of 6 seconds for a recruiter to make up their mind about you based on your CV. After that, the initial judgement is very difficult to change.
- Overconfidence bias
When you assign yourself more authority than you deserve. Another favorite in the online era, overconfidence bias often shows up when we spend a few hours researching a topic on the net and conclude that we’re experts in the area.
- Social proof
Taking action in a direction that is – or appears to be – popular. I was once walking through Covent Garden in London and was drawn to a huge crowd that had formed around a street performer. After watching him for a while it became clear that his entire performance was based on eliciting crowd applause for doing nothing. He would walk from one side of the circle to the other and get the crowd to erupt in adulation. The more people applauded the more people came to watch. Soon he had by far the biggest crowd of all the street performers, despite not doing anything special. That’s the power of social proof. Online and in the real world, we are constantly scanning for what others do in order to decide our own course of action. Time and again history has shown how dangerous this can be.
- Blindspot bias
The lack of awareness of your biases – pretty self-explanatory, and self-evident in the nature of bias itself. Overcoming blindspot bias requires self-awareness and a willingness to see your own limiting thought patterns. Hopefully this article has done a small bit to help, but active engagement with a job coach will help you break the patterns of bias that are preventing you from seeing your best work opportunities, or showing up as the great job candidate you could be.