Webinar Wrap-Up: If you have a brain, you have biases. How do we manage them?

This post originally appeared on the blog in June 2020. Following an encore presentation of the webinar, we’re republishing the summary with added Q&A from the latest broadcast.

In this week’s webinar, we explored the neuroscience of bias, helping us understand how to recognize the many ways it influences our responses and actions. More importantly, we identified several actions you can take to help to mitigate its impact in our lives.

You can watch the complete webinar on-demand here, or read on for the highlights, as well as a Q&A with the presenters.

Understanding the Brain

Our brains are designed to keep us safe and to conserve energy, building our reserves so that when unexpected challenges arise, we are able to meet them. This means the brain has evolved to be:

  • Threat sensitive: our brains may anticipate threats that aren’t there – and react as if they are – thousands of times, just so we will be ready to respond when a threat does arise.
  • Lazy: our brains have evolved to default to doing things that take less energy – i.e., things that are known. Learning new things takes energy; to conserve energy, our brains prefer habits (whether they are good habits or bad).

When the brain is under extreme stress, the older and more primitive portions take over. (Think the “flight, flight, or freeze” response.) The prefrontal cortex – the part that controls those vital higher functions we rely on for more complex thinking, reasoning, and decision-making – takes a back seat.

Our brains work this way for a reason: they encounter exponentially more information than they can process. In every second, we encounter 11 million pieces of information; we capture just 50 of those pieces. How many do we process? Just 7.

That leaves a lot of blanks. To fill in those blanks, the brain takes “short cuts” – those short cuts are biases.

These shortcuts cause us to make unconscious decisions. Most of these unconscious decisions are wrong. This is especially true if the problem or issue is complex… like another person. Our biases help our brains make snap judgments about people that we never consciously realize we’re making. Using small data points, we make decisions about people that then extend to their entire character. Our brains are also wired to cover up our lack of knowledge. We become over-confident in these initial perceptions, and resist questioning them.

Dozens of these cognitive biases have been identified by psychologists – some well-known, like Confirmation Bias, Fundamental Attribution Error, and Stereotyping. (If you are curious, you may like this fascinating Cognitive Bias Codex that names and sorts more than 100 of them.)

It is essential to recognize that while these biases may be unfair and under-informed, they may result in bad decisions, and they may cause us to make terrible errors in judgment – they are present in all of us. These biases are part of how the brain functions. We cannot erase them; at best, we can learn new behaviors to help us mitigate them.

Motivational Biases

After decades of studying motivation using the Individual Directions Inventory™, MRG has some unique insights into the biases that stem from our deepest motivations. While many people can recognize their own behavior patterns, often we do not take as much time to examine the motivations that drive those behaviors. These motivations originate in our formative years and can become so ingrained over time that they can be very difficult for us to recognize objectively.

The motivational biases we develop can manifest in a number of ways. A few examples:

“Everyone wants my help.”

For someone who is highly motivated by giving and supporting others, they may develop an assumption bias that everyone around them wants their help, when in fact that may not be the case at all (particularly for those who are less motivated by receiving support).

“Data is the most important element in decision-making – everyone knows that.”

An individual who is driven to analyze and interpret could easily make the estimation error that all people like making decisions the same way they do – by relying on data – when in fact, others may rely more on instinctive response, future projections or other factors.

“Nobody wants a bunch of praise and fuss about their accomplishments.”

For someone who is less motivated by getting external recognition, the idea that others may relish getting public praise is hard to fathom.

Now imagine individuals with all of these motivational biases – and many more – coming together in a collaborative work environment. It is easy to see the role that motivational biases can play in misalignment and even conflict in the workplace. As we engage in development work, whether with teams or individuals, it is imperative that we help people understand their own potential biases and learn strategies to help manage them.

4 Strategies to Manage Biases

As we’ve establish, biases cannot be erased – they are part of our cognitive function, and they won’t go away. As we have also learned, the negative impact of these cognitive shortcuts can be powerful.

To help individuals mitigate the impact of their own biases, work on these four strategies:

  1. Increase your awareness.

Become aware of your own motivations (using an assessment like the IDI is one avenue to getting to this information, rather than attempting self-observation, which can be tricky to do objectively). Work to understand your internal and external triggers. Everyone’s brain becomes more taxed under stress, and brain that is more taxed is likely to take even more shortcuts than usual.

  1. Take time to reflect.

Look back at your past decisions – particularly those that resulted in outcomes you are unsatisfied with. How could decision-making have been improved? Consider also times when you perceive that others’ biases may have impacted the decisions they made about you. How did this feel? Were you able to get them to move past their assumptions? If so, what work did it take?

  1. Slow down.

Take the time to get to know people; reserve judgment as you collect more data points than initial impressions allow. Create a practice of taking three deep breaths when you find yourself having a highly charged reaction to someone or something. Learn to recognize what a considered response looks like vs. an automatic response. Start listening to your internal narrative. What are the patterns? What story do you tell yourself?

  1. Break the habit cycle.

Ask for feedback, and work on asking questions rather than making statements. Take the time to sleep on challenging decisions rather than giving into initial responses. Spend more time using your imagination. Try a few mental exercises: how would I advise someone else about this decision? How would I decide this a year from now?

No amount of mindfulness will eliminate our biases. With greater self-awareness, however, we can do the hard work of recognizing them, and of retraining ourselves – to make our responses considered, and not reactive, and to make our decisions informed by evidence, not strictly emotion.

For a deeper dive, you can watch the complete webinar on demand here. Read on for answers from presenters Tricia Naddaff and David Ringwood to questions from our webinar attendees.


Questions & Answers

Q: Are all these biases are functioning in the ‘older’ part of brain – therefore we are not aware of them?

A (Tricia Naddaff):

 

Q: How do the motivation-based biases you are describing link to the eight types of biases presented earlier?

A (David Ringwood): There are in fact multiple categories of bias and probably a few hundred specific bias types. It is probably helpful then to provide a few specific examples rather than trying to be too expansive.

Those who are motivated to see themselves as being beyond reproach may have views and opinions that are harder to influence, or they might be more intransigent in their views. The potential therefore is for the mindset bias (the “I’m right” mentality), meaning if you have an opposing view, you are clearly wrong. While it does not necessarily follow, it would be worth exploring whether this might lead to a Confirmation Bias and/or the Semmelweis Reflex (the predisposition to arbitrarily reject information that conflicts with one’s view).

Those who are motivated to be cautious about the motives of others might have something of an Assumption Bias, i.e. the assumption that people usually have hidden agendas. This can then lead to Fundamental Attribution Errors.

As we can see, biases can co-occur and one might easily lead to another. This is why it is such a rich and potentially important area to explore in coaching.

Q: Wow. I can see how we can start to transform our own thinking by developing deep awareness of these biases. How do we speak to and create awareness in others – particularly if they are hearing constant falsehoods that over time they accept as truth?

A (Tricia Naddaff):

Q: Can we edit our memories, and can we reinforce the ones that are more beneficial to us?

A (Tricia Naddaff):

Q: I have done the IDI, and I know I am highly motivated by achievement, gaining stature, giving, and autonomy. Could these motivational biases be why my son (now in his 40’s) assumes that when I offer him advice, I must think he was foolish not to know this already? What should I do to reduce conflict?

A (David Ringwood): What is being described here is actually behaviour, i.e. how one person engages with another as they try to provide advice and guidance. Our motives to do so may well be as described, but it is important to maintain that distinction. Those who give advice may be motivated in various ways, perhaps by the authentic desire to help, but also because of high expectations and the desire to not leave success to chance.

The best way to think about this is that support is only helpful if it is relevant to the other person, so we need to understand how to support them on their terms, not on our terms. The risk for any of us is that we might rely on our own assumptions or feel the compelling influence of our own drivers as we try to push others towards what we think they should be doing. The likelihood that this coincidentally is exactly what they want is low. In this regard it is better to ask than to assume, and better sometimes to wait for advice to be sought (and to qualify what this means) rather than to push it towards others. It might be counterintuitive, but we need to remember that motivation and effectiveness are not the same thing. The desire to help others, as admirable as it might be, doesn’t mean that we always get it right.

Q: Does the internal self-talk that can act to ‘confirm’ a bias comes from the pre-frontal cortex?

A (Tricia Naddaff):

Q: It is difficult to be self-reflective because we get emotionally high-jacked. We all need external disruptors. Have you read White Fragility? It’s very powerful. WE need to educate ourselves so that our shifts in thinking and perspectives are more informed. Your thoughts?

A (Tricia Naddaff):

 


(Are you part of the MRG network? Log into the MRG Knowledge Base once to access more webinars, along with the full MRG research library.)

Also, if there’s anything we at MRG can do to help support you or advise you as you transition to more online coaching, training, and facilitation in the coming weeks, please don’t hesitate to reach out. 


About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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