A Better Workplace

How to Outsmart Unconscious Biases From Decision Making Process

We all have unconscious biases that influence how we judge others. Even the smartest people make decisions and make judgments with biases.

Unconscious biases influence how we think, act, and behave, and they have a bigger impact on us than we know. It’s unrealistic to think we’ll be able to overcome them quickly. However, by educating ourselves when we need to make a decision, we can anticipate and outsmart them.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the sources of biases.

Decision-making, according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, is not totally dependent on conscious, rational thought. Kahneman describes two ways of thinking in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

System 1

System 1 makes automatic judgments based on instinct, past learning, and connections stored in memory Instead of cognitively thinking through the given information.
No doubt, System 1 is necessary for survival. It’s what saved us from being attacked by saber-toothed tigers, killed by a member of a foreign tribe, or led us to turn to avoid a car accident.

However, as psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, it is also a common source of bias that can lead to poor decision-making since our intuitions often lead us wrongly.

System 2

System 2 is essentially deliberate thinking that is slower and motivated by logic and deliberation.
Even when we believe we are making rational decisions, our System 1 biases influence many of our choices. We rely more on intuitive, System 1 judgments and less on logical thinking, especially in unexpected situations. System 1 makes Decision-making faster and simpler, but quality usually decreases as a result.

What are exercises to outsmart your own biases?

The good news is that we have the ability to outsmart our own biases. We can start by understanding where they are coming from excessive reliance on intuition, defective reasoning, or both.

According to Jack Soll, Katherine Milkman, and John Payne, tunnel vision of future scenarios, objectives, and options, are some of the most stubborn biases out there.

They highlight how, in order to “debias” our judgments, we need to extend our perspective on all three fronts.

Thinking About the Future

Almost everyone thinks of possible outcomes too narrowly. some people make a single best guess and stop there, while others want to keep their options open.
Because most of us are overconfident in our assumptions, it’s critical to encourage ourselves to account for risk and uncertainty. The solutions listed below are highly helpful.

  • Make three estimates

Make at least three estimates—low, medium, and high—to increase your accuracy. With this strategy, you’re less likely to be caught off guard by extreme events—and you can plan for them. Your middle estimate will certainly get you closer to reality than a two-number range.

  • Think twice

This exercise is to make two forecasts and take the average. According to research, when people think about a topic more than once, they often approach it from a different angle, adding valuable information.
So, listen to your inner crowd and give yourself time to think about it, envision one result, take a break and then project another. Don’t go back to your previous estimate since it will just serve to anchor you and limit your potential to get fresh insights. If you can’t stop thinking about your previous estimate, assume it was incorrect and investigate the reasons why.

  • Use premortems

The goal of a postmortem is often to determine the root cause of a previous failure. A premortem involves imagining a future failure and then explaining the cause. This approach, also known as prospective hindsight, helps you in identifying possible problems that common foresight would not discover.
There are various advantages to thinking in this manner. For example, it lessens optimism by encouraging a more realistic evaluation of risk. Second, it helps you in developing backup plans and exit strategies. Third, it can highlight elements that will impact success or failure, thereby increasing your ability to influence the outcome.

  • Take an outside view

This is what Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman refer to as getting an “inside view” of the project, which usually leads to excessive optimism. You need to supplement this perspective with an outside perspective—one that evaluates what has happened in similar ventures and what advice you would give someone else if you weren’t participating in the venture.

Thinking About Objectives

It’s also important to have a broad perspective on your goals. This will help you focus when it comes time to choose your best selections.

  • Seek advice

Look for suggestions from others to get the most out of your perspective.

  • Cycle through your objectives

Looking at objectives one at a time rather than all at once allows people to generate additional possibilities.

Thinking About Options

Although a critical mass of possibilities is required to make smart decisions, you must also discover strong contenders—at least two, but ideally three to five. People rarely think about more than one thing at a time.

  • Use joint evaluation

The problem with evaluating possibilities separately is that you can’t guarantee the best results. Consider what you’ll be missing if you select a certain choice. This forces you to consider different options.

  • Try the “vanishing options” test

People usually prefer to move on once they have a good option, so they forget to investigate alternatives that may be better. Chip and Dan Heath, decision experts, recommend a mental trick to solve this problem: Assume you can’t pick any of the alternatives you’re considering and ask yourself, “What else could I do?” This question will set off a chain of events that will lead to the exploration of alternatives.

Take a moment this week to think. See if you can identify any of your unconscious biases and the sources of them, as well as what could be hiding in your workplace. Bringing this into attention can alter your future approach to things and help you to be more open to differences.

Watch this amazing talk by Valerie Alexander about How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias: 

How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias | Valerie Alexander | TEDxPasade


  • Outsmart Your Own Biases, How to broaden your thinking and make better decisions by Jack B. Soll, Katherine L. Milkman, and John W. Payne, Harvard Business Review, 2015
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

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