Navigating the Gray Area: Bias or Indicator?

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Authored by

NLI Staff
Slowing down, thinking more analytically, and considering outside perspectives are just three ways to make the distinction.

Imagine this: Your manager has asked you for feedback about two co-workers, and you find yourself instinctively favoring one over the other. But then you start to question whether your preference is a result of bias against the other co-worker. After all, you’ve never been particularly fond of her, and recent joint projects where she failed to carry her weight left you working overtime to compensate. Is it reasonable to still think of this as bias? Or should you explore the possibility that recurring unpleasant incidents involving her are an indicator for you to delve further into the matter and try to resolve it?

We live in a complex environment that requires quick decisions, often under conditions of uncertainty. A common way to navigate this cognitive maze is to use mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to simplify our judgments and decision-making. Heuristics are great in many situations, but they can also lead to mistakes or bias. Some common biases are availability bias, where we use what we remember easily to make decisions about the future, and confirmation bias, where we look for evidence that agrees with our beliefs.

There are many other cognitive biases, and The SEEDS Model®, developed by NLI researchers, groups more than 150 biases into five broad categories: similarity, expedience, experience, distance, and safety. For example, availability and confirmation biases are examples of expedience bias, which helps us make quick decisions using information that “feels right.”

Indicators, on the other hand, can be crucial signals that alert us to potential problems, prompting us to examine a situation more closely. Sometimes if we’re not careful, we can hastily label an indicator as a bias. In the situation with your colleague, for example, what might have started off as bias against her morphed into an indicator once you collaborated with her and had differences. You may have continued to dismiss your feelings against her as bias when, in reality, the situation now warranted attention and was worth addressing.

To be sure, many people wouldn’t consider their initial reaction to be biased. We all have a “bias blind spot” that causes us to quickly recognize bias in others but not in ourselves. This has real-world consequences: People with a high bias blind spot are not only more likely to ignore the advice of experts or peers, but they’re also less likely to benefit from training designed to correct biased judgment.

Overcoming our biases, then, involves first accepting that we all have them. Then, we can label them using The SEEDS Model and apply the appropriate mitigation strategy. But sometimes, if we aren’t careful, we might hastily label a situation as bias and brush real issues that need addressing under the carpet. Being too quick to label an indicator as a bias can lead us to ignore uncomfortable circumstances or overlook them altogether.

Ironically, the cognitive shortcuts we rely on to simplify decision-making — and which lead to bias — can also sometimes cause us to mistake an indicator for bias. By relying too heavily on intuition and heuristics, we may overlook vital information and make decisions that are not based on careful analysis.

In addition, when faced with emotionally uncomfortable situations, such as the prospect of a confrontation with a colleague, we may default to suboptimal reasoning. Several studies have shown that people tend to perform worse at logical reasoning tasks when they’re in a negative emotional state.

Here are some ways you can try to think more deliberately when deciding if something is a bias or an indicator.

Slow down

If you’ve ever felt mentally exhausted and struggled to focus on a task, then you’ve experienced how fatigue impacts cognitive processes that allow us to regulate our thoughts and behaviors. Slowing down and taking breaks can allow us to think rationally and help our more deliberate thought processes kick in.

We could also try to practice mindfulness, which involves being conscious, aware, and open to the experiences of the present moment. Practicing mindfulness regularly can help us regulate our emotions.

Challenge yourself to think analytically

The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) is a region of our brain that’s been dubbed “the brain’s braking mechanism” for its role in inhibiting our reflexive responses in favor of more deliberate and thoughtful decision-making. So instead of jumping to the conclusion that you’re biased against your co-worker, write down your thoughts, reason through them in a stepwise manner, and actively look for any flaws in your logic.

Consider outside perspectives

Sometimes just speaking to a person who’s not involved in a situation can help clarify your thoughts and expose whether you’re being biased or if a situation is part of a larger pattern that needs addressing.

Perhaps if you’d spoken to other people who’ve collaborated with your co-worker, they might have told you they had similar experiences with her. In general, it can also help to stop and consider what a situation might look like from the outside to help see things more objectively.

So the next time you’re tempted to hastily brush off an uncomfortable feeling as a bias, take the time to engage with the situation more deeply and ask yourself if your feelings are based on fact or fiction.

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