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Why your brain turns to biases under time constraints

Ask yourself if you are guilty of making these cognitive shortcuts.

Why your brain turns to biases under time constraints
[Photo: Tero Vesalainen/iStock]
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At this point, most of us know that to be human is to be biased. At any given moment, we are faced with 11 billion bits of information and our brain can only actively process 40 of them. There’s a huge delta there, and the way our brains handle the gap is through cognitive shortcuts. While these cognitive shortcuts can help us navigate the world, they can also lead to incomplete, overly simplistic, and sometimes even problematic thinking.

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Another word for these cognitive shortcuts is biases. As you think about bias, you’re likely familiar with terms such as “confirmation bias,” “negativity bias,” or “halo effect.” These are terms used for the specific biases our brains employ to come to conclusions. In fact, researchers have identified and defined more than 180 different kinds of biases or cognitive shortcuts.

As leaders and people, one way to mitigate that thinking is to be aware of circumstances where you are more susceptible to lean into biased thinking, circumstances when your brain is focused more on managing the gap. At FranklinCovey, we call these the bias traps.

There are three traps that represent common circumstances when our brains are most susceptible to bias in the workplace: “Information Overload,” “Feelings Over Facts,” and the “Need for Speed.” When we are in these circumstances, the brain pushes more information to the side in order to focus on the 40 bits of information it can actively process. And in that process, our brains sometimes push aside important pieces of information. When you are overwhelmed, highly emotional, or rushed (for some of us, that’s quite often), your brain is more likely to lean into the shortcuts.

Information overload

When we face an overwhelming amount of data or inputs, we’re at risk of Information Overload. Our brains have learned to automatically filter much of that information, even the bits that might be useful. For example, if we have hundreds of résumés to plow through, we might be more likely to lean into bias to help us make fast assessments.

Feelings over facts

Many of us would say that our beliefs are factual (we see this a lot in heated debates!). As our brains absorb information, the emotional and primitive parts preempt the thinking part and turn our beliefs about that information into facts. In the absence of information, our brains fill in the blanks, often by drawing on how we feel about a situation. We then operate as if it is fact.

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The Leader’s Guide To Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams, by Pamela Fuller, Mark Murphy, and Anne Chow.

So how does this bias trap of feelings over facts come about in common biases we might hold? Two common biases are in-group bias and negativity bias.

In-group bias is our tendency to favor people we like or those who are like us, while excluding those who are different. Say I’m a leader assigned a new project, and I’m told I get to pick my team from the rest of my colleagues. In-group bias means I’ll unconsciously tend to pick people who act like me, agree with me, or look like me. There’s another introvert on the team, so I pick him. There’s a woman on the team, so I pick her. There’s another Latina on the team, so I pick her. This is comfortable, but it doesn’t lead to the best results. In-group bias can be especially insidious in hiring practices, team assignments, and customer engagement.

Negativity bias is when we are more powerfully affected by negative experiences than positive ones. Think back to when you were a kid. You probably remember when you were grounded more vividly than all the times you weren’t in trouble. We and others hold on to the negative experience, not the full picture. In a sales context, you might consistently hit your goals quarter after quarter. But if you miss a quarter, it tends to affect your reputation. We hold on to that single negative outcome instead of the many positive ones that preceded it.

The need for speed

The Need for Speed occurs when we cut corners to act quickly. Often these time-savers are based on bias and can be simplistic, self-centered, and even counterproductive.

Some of the Need for Speed is born from survival instincts, the primitive brain, or the idea of “fight or flight or freeze” instinctual reaction. But the Need for Speed can also come into play organizationally and can result in snap judgments, bias, and misperceptions. We need to fill a position immediately, so we hire a colleague’s niece instead of completing a competitive hiring process. Our article is due this afternoon, so we make some critical assumptions instead of running down sources and completing interviews based on fact. A client is angry, and we dismiss them as difficult so we can get through the customer service queue, rather than slowing down and getting to the root of the problem.

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Two common biases under the Need for Speed are attribution bias and sunk-cost bias. Attribution bias is the idea that we judge others on their actions, but we judge ourselves on our intent. If I make a mistake, I have a very good explanation for it and I know my intent was good. If colleagues make a mistake, they’re fundamentally flawed—disorganized, cavalier, or uncommitted. Stated differently, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and the additional time to make a contribution and don’t naturally extend that benefit to others. As Stephen M. R. Covey, best-selling author of The Speed of Trust, says, “We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their observable behavior.”

Consider team dynamics. Suppose you have a new team member in a role you used to do. He takes much longer to submit a report than you did when you were in that role. You start to believe he’s a fundamentally slow worker, ignoring the fact that you were in that role much longer than he’s been. And in circumstances like these, that attribution can even be extended to identifiers the person has, like generation, ethnicity, or job function.

Sunk-cost bias is our tendency to continue our current course of action because we’ve invested time, money, or energy into it. It’s the idea that we have reached a point of no return. This bias can show up in our personal life when we have a hard time letting go of expensive possessions, even after they’ve outlived their usefulness. It shows up many ways professionally as well—from the process we can’t see past because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” to the failing projects we continue to dump time and money into because our egos are overly invested in this being the “best” idea.

Recognizing when we feel overwhelmed, high emotion, or duress in a circumstance is the first step in mitigating potential negative impacts of bias in our thinking. Simply put, creating space between those feelings and our decisions and interactions can have profound impact on the outcomes we achieve and a larger sense of inclusion in our teams and organizations.


Pamela Fuller is Franklin Covey‘s thought leader on unconscious bias, lead architect of its organizational solution, and one of the firm’s top global sales leaders. She began her career in nonprofit fundraising and advocacy. After earning her MBA, Pamela served as a diversity analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense.

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From THE LEADER’S GUIDE TO UNCONSCIOUS BIAS: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams, by Pamela Fuller, Mark Murphy, and Anne Chow. Copyright © 2020 by Franklin Covey Co. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All rights reserved.