Monday, May 8, 2017

Minimizing the Actions and Reactions of a Brain on Bias

Minimizing the Actions and Reactions of a Brain on Bias

If you’ve been reading along with my previous posts (Predictably Irrational: The Curse of Cognitive Bias and Bias Against Innovation), then you know I’ve been exploring cognitive bias – the automatic judgements and processes that are critical to our survival – it’s what makes us swerve before hitting the car in front of us. But these automatic processes also get in the way of rational decision-making. I’d like to round out this short series with an exploration on how we can, if at all, control or overcome these biases so that we can think as clearly and as critically as possible.

As previously mentioned, bias is inevitable and unavoidable – it manifests automatically and sometimes unconsciously, but that doesn’t mean we can’t manage it and minimize its negative effects. The first step to avoiding bias pitfalls is to recognize them. But while awareness certainly matters, awareness alone doesn’t quite cut it. There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. If we are conscience of bias, there are useful tools and strategies we can implement to try to tackle these ever-present proclivities.

Below are a handful of strategies and tools that may be helpful in combating cognitive bias, especially those biases that can impede innovation including zero risk bias, confirmation bias, functional fixedness, hyperbolic discounting, information bias, negativity bias, and conservatism bias. But be forewarned, this is no easy task – dealing with bias is difficult and frustrating. If this is all too much, I get it, but before you close this page, let me raise the ostrich effect for consideration. This bias may cause you to ignore negative or intimidating information much like an ostrich burying its head in the sand . . . Now get your head out of the sand and read on.

Practice empathy. The age-old adage, put yourself in someone else’s shoes, highlights the importance of humility in overcoming bias. This allows us to be self-aware and more open to ideas that may conflict with our personal opinions or conclusions. Remind yourself that your own perspective in this world is limited and simply one among many. This will reduce defensiveness and open the door to revising deeply held beliefs (often reinforced by bias) in the face of compelling reason. Suspend judgment, ask questions, and don’t immediately and automatically advocate your views when confronted with dissent.

Attempt to prove yourself wrong. Seek out information from a range of sources and perspectives to get a better, fuller picture of your preconceptions. Test assumptions and deliberately force yourself to consider alternatives or you will miss the smoking guns staring you in the face. Understanding and considering different perspectives is vital to reaching a well-informed, unbiased decision. It’s ok to fall in love with a concept, just be rational about it. Easy, right?

Ditch the ego. Hand in hand with empathy is suppressing an inflated ego. Big egos foreclose open mindedness and ultimately opportunity that comes with diversity in thought and collaboration. Unfortunately, ego-based thinking is our natural human default – we embrace information that confirms our preconceptions – remember confirmation bias? But if you can practice reining in the ego, you will be less defensive and better able to process information that isn’t necessarily confirmatory.

Seek outside advice. Don’t contemplate choices with consequences in a vacuum. This is the easiest way to let bias infiltrate important business related actions. Look for an advisor or peer who will argue the opposite of what you are doing and the downside of your strategy. Preferably someone with a view of the world divergent from your own.

Challenge the status quo. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s ok to make mistakes. A big part of overcoming bias – see, for example, zero risk bias, hyperbolic discounting, and negativity bias – is being ok with risk and failure. This is the space where opportunity and innovation thrive. Many people have a preference to reject change and maintain the current state, which no doubt impedes innovation. To overcome bias, consciously push yourself outside of your comfort zone and remind yourself that risk and failure bring opportunity and reward.

Who knew rational thinking was so dang hard? Ah, the human condition, our own hard-wired brain acting as the ultimate double-edged sword – cognitive bias keeps us alive and saves us time, but sabotages logical thought and rational decision making. As I get ready to head to FEI next week, I’ll be over analyzing my thoughts, challenging my deeply held beliefs on innovation, and trying not to let bias drive me crazy. I hope those headed to FEI will join me in this pursuit.

If you’d like to connect and talk more about cognitive bias and design, please reach out. We will be at the conference all week talking about The Physics of Brand, design, and the stories that inspire us.

Aaron Keller, Kitty Hart, and I write for the FEI event blog, please reach out if you have a story to share.

Research and Strategy Associate
Capsule Design

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