Cognitive Bias: Sing Your Way to Successful Mitigation

So many biases.

Pick a number between 1–10, then scroll down.

(I’ll wait a sec for your answer.)

Did you choose 7? I did when I was asked. That’s the result of bias, or when our brains play tricks on us to think things that may not be accurate. And it happens a lot. The topic of biases has been top-of-mind lately, and I’ve heard people say that they are trying to eliminate their biases. I question whether that’s possible. There are so many biases. So many that I’ve never heard of most of them – look down below. How can you get rid of your biases if you don’t even know that they exist?! A more appropriate statement would be for people to say that they want to understand their biases and are working to ensure that they do not inappropriately dictate their attitudes and actions.

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As user-centered strategists and designers, we’re speaking and meeting with people all the time and — because we’re human — our biases creep in all over the place. If we’re doing a project about garbage bags, for example, one of the things that we’d do is to meet with people in their homes to learn about how they think about garbage and their garbage-related activities. Let’s say that someone talks about recycling in a way that’s different from what I believe. Bias possibility. Or their house smells like something I don’t particularly like. Bias possibility. Or they mispronounce a word. Bias possibility. And dozens more. By recognizing that those biases exist — and that we may subconsciously harbor them — enables us to look at the situation objectively, understand when we might be inserting our biases and give things a second, clearer look.

After research, when we’re trying to make sense of what we learned, it can be easy to let biases in again, either by discounting or favoring someone’s experience too strongly. For example, we might be tempted to decide that the person with the house that smelled different didn’t have anything to teach us about garbage management just because the smell in their house reminded us of something we didn’t like (confirmation bias). Or we might feel that the person with the spotless home more accurately represents everyone, perhaps because of our representative bias.

Opportunity for bias isn’t just limited to research participants. It can affect teams, relationships with managers, your view toward market opportunities or your thoughts about the parents with the crying kid at the restaurant. The point is: we all have biases. Lots. And they’re real. And they can have a major effects on what we do. Not being aware or denying that they exist makes things worse. Recognizing that we have them and acting appropriately gets us to better results.

To help increase awareness of cognitive biases, there’s this little ditty. It’s totally suitable for work, but is pretty catchy, so be careful — you’ll be singing about cognitive biases all day (which, to be fair, is at least more useful than baby sharks).