The brain is an incredibly effective machine. Thousands of years of evolution has created a lean machine with many inbuilt shortcuts to enable us to function effectively in complex environments. The brain uses heuristics to draw conclusions about the world with minimal effort. While heuristics are indeed useful, they can at times lead to the wrong conclusions being drawn.
A lot of the time these false conclusions aren’t harmful, however, they can play havoc when making decisions in the workplace.
What are heuristics?
A heuristic is a mental shortcut used to quickly solve a problem, make a decision, or answer a question.
The brain uses prior data to generate a quick response so that it doesn’t have to spend time developing a new solution every time a new situation arises. This saves time when having to draw conclusions about large amounts of information and can be extremely useful in quickly allowing us to make sense of complex environments and situations. For example, availability heuristic is used to assess the probabilities of events based on other similar occurrences that are easily brought to mind. The easier examples come to mind, the more weight we give to them. Availability heuristic is useful when judging the frequency and probability of events without spending time thinking in-depth about the probability.
However useful heuristics are, they can also fail at making correct assumptions about the world. When the heuristics ‘fail’, the result is a cognitive bias: drawing a false conclusion based on prior data. One of the most common heuristics is availability heuristic, where it is easier to recall events with greater consequence or impact. For example, after multiple news reports about shark sightings, you are more afraid of being bitten by a shark when you swim at the beach compared to something more mundane such as having a car crash on the way to the beach. In reality, you are much more likely to have a car crash than be bitten by a shark, but the focus is placed on the shark.
Decision Making at Work & Cognitive Biases
In a work setting, heuristics can lead to a range of cognitive biases that may impact the effectiveness of decision-making. The following are some common biases to watch out for:
- In-group Bias: Viewing people who we can identify with easily in a more favourable light and potentially giving unfair treatment to those identified in our ‘out-group’. This can play out in many ways in a work context – from selecting the job candidate who is most similar to you, to placing more emphasis on advice for your own team rather than a team in a different function.
- Confirmation Bias: Placing more emphasis on information that confirms preconceived beliefs or ideas, and potentially avoiding information that may contradict them. In a decision-making context, seek out others’ ideas and be open to challenging your decision to ensure it is the most appropriate decision for the problem. Actively seek out information that may contradict your preconceived belief.
- False Consensus Effect: Overestimating the extent to which others agree with you. Be careful to check in with others to gauge their agreement rather than assuming everyone is on board with your decision.
- Availability Heuristic: Assessing the probability of events based on how easily they are brought to mind. Be careful when conducting risk assessments – how probable is that event? Are you overlooking any events that less-easily come to mind but may have greater impacts?
- Curse of Knowledge: Inability to appreciate what it’s like to not know a piece of information. Be careful not to assume others have the same prior knowledge as you. In presentations and meetings, always present information in easy to comprehend language that is tailored to your audience’s level of prior knowledge.
- Primacy and Recency: It is easier to recall information presented at the start and end of a list or presented information. This is why the ‘feedback sandwich’ doesn’t work; the person will likely only remember the positive feedback that is presented first and last and forget the constructive feedback that was presented in the middle of the conversation. When writing an email, keep the key points at the start of the email rather than hidden in the middle.
‘Protecting’ yourself against Cognitive Biases
The nature of heuristics and cognitive biases means they are subconscious, so you can never really stop yourself from making them. However, you can be more aware of the possibility that cognitive biases are clouding your decision-making. Increasing your awareness around your thinking and decision-making processes leads to a choice with how you use that information, which in turn will inform your action. As writer and leadership speaker Robin Sharma said, “awareness precedes choice and choice precedes results”.
When engaging in decision making, pause to consider what lead you to your conclusion. Were cognitive biases at play? If so, what is your choice for how to proceed? Pausing to consider this will help you become more aware of your own biases, leading to more effective decision-making and problem-solving at work.