Bias: It’s About You

Bias: It’s About You

by Mark Chussil

If we ran a survey asking “are you biased?” we would find no one is. Bias is a characteristic of others, not of ourselves. It’s about you, not me. Which is ironic, and the point.

We see others’ biases, or at least what we perceive as their biases, and don’t see our own. Our biases don’t feel like biases. They feel like self-evident, virtuous truth. That’s why I find it so valuable to read lucid commentaries on bias. They help me recognize and combat my own. My biases, that is, not my commentaries.

And so, kudos to two well-known writers.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate and columnist at The New York Times, wrote Ideas Are Not The Same As Race. He describes how reasonable self-selection can incorrectly appear as bias.

John Allen Paulos, the Temple University mathematician, ABC commentator, and author of Innumeracy, wrote Who’s Counting: Testing and Hiring Disparities Need Not Imply Bias. He describes how innocent coincidences can incorrectly look like bias.

(See also Fire! Or Maybe Not, my take on the New Haven firefighter discrimination case that went up to the United States Supreme Court.)

Bias doesn’t affect only hiring. It can show up in strategy decision-making. There’s the concept of investing in fast-growing products, which is circular because investment feeds growth and biased because it is self-fulfilling. (See also “viral,” which produces a similar result through a different mechanism.) Another example: many online or text-message surveys use only self-selected respondents. That doesn’t guarantee the surveys will be wrong but it does guarantee they’ll be right only if they’re lucky.

So far we’ve been talking about logical, mathematical bias. There are cognitive biases too, such as overconfidence, confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports a view and discounting evidence that goes against that view), availability bias (vivid anecdotes that stick in our memories more than cold, sober science), and so on. For more on those subjects, I recommend The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Scott Plous (Wesleyan University) and Judgment in Managerial Decision Making by Max Bazerman (Harvard Business School).

Bias is hard to eliminate when we’re unaware of it but not that hard to control when we are aware of it. Here’s what I’ve found helps.

  • Pause when you hear the words “obvious” or “because.” Is something really obvious or really because?
  • Ask the question implicit in Dr. Krugman’s and Prof. Paulos’ commentaries: Is there something other than prejudice (or whatever) that could cause this outcome?
  • Learn, even a little, about probability and randomness, or make friends with someone who has. Prof. Paulos’ books are terrific and non-technical. So is Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk.
  • Follow Prof. Plous’ advice: “Stop to consider reasons why your judgment might be wrong.” That’s what stress-testing, such as business war gaming, is about.
  • Apply Prof. Plous’ advice when working with others. I’ve conducted business war games around the world, and the stop-to-consider process that’s built into them has led to stunning, profitable insights.
  • Think about how to answer a question before actually answering it. That might seem silly or obvious, but we often jump to methods even faster than we jump to conclusions. I’ve found this approach tremendously effective when I build strategy simulation models. (See also All About Models.)
  • Think you’re not biased? Just for fun, and to support cold, sober science, try Harvard’s fascinating, confidential Project Implicit.

“Fortunately for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized.”
Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846)

Dr. Krugman tweets as @NYTimeskrugman. Prof. Paulos tweets as @JohnAllenPaulos. I tweet as @BusinessWarGame and @NiceStart.

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