Beating Bias, Grounding Groupthink.

Posted by jlubans on March 31, 2015


I recently wrote about why some groups are smarter than others, at least in a laboratory setting.
Researchers have come up with predictors of group success or failure; something called Factor C, with its three measures:
participant emotional or social IQ;
the number of engaged participants;
and, interestingly, the number of women on the team.
Those same elements influence the inevitable biases to be found in groups. What do I mean by bias? It’s that very human tendency to go with an emotional rather than a factually objective perspective. Bias insinuates; a subtle, convivial partner to the do-nothing of “happy talk.” Some biases are so common they have names; here are four: Confirmation Bias, Post-Decision Rationalization, Status-Quo Bias, and the Bandwagon Effect. I have seen all of these in action; they’ve influenced me. Likewise, I’ve seen groups fall short of their best because of an irrational predisposition.
1. Confirmation Bias
This happens when I listen only to people who agree with me. If someone else believes what I believe, then that adds certainty and confidence to my view. If someone disagrees with my worldview, then I dismiss that opinion – What does that person know! I might make it personal; you are either with me or against me.
Some say that the most pathological aspect of confirmation bias is how it influences a group’s end position. Likeminded, moderate people, when mixed in a group containing more than one extreme view will tend to adopt the extreme view. I know only a few people who have the ability to remain open-minded –to think for themselves and keep their predilection at bay – and make a decision that most closely meets what they believe is the best way. I know many people who are pretty set in their ways – indeed their behavior is predictable when confronted with change. It is as if they willingly suspend their critical thinking skills in favor of a preconceived notion.
2. Post-Decision Rationalization
Having made a bad decision, I resist owning up to the mistake and changing direction. A personal example: I have always had a strong preference for Apple computers but there was a spell when Apple nearly failed – their products were no longer cutting edge and they lost the educational market to PCs. I decided to buy Apples for the organization in spite of PCs being competitive and at the time probably more reliable. I should have been more open to PCs. Had I listed out the pros and cons and maybe looked at costs/benefits I might have had a more tenable position to explain why I did what I did.
3. Status-Quo Bias
If we are apprehensive about change, it is easy for us to reason that if something “ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” We prefer to leave things the way they are rather than look for how to improve. I discovered that a different mantra helped us get past resistance: “If it ain’t broke, break it.”
4. Bandwagon Effect
If everyone is doing it, I want to do it too. The bandwagon effect is huge in my line of work, sometimes for the good, often for the not so good. Instead of blindly copying what the fellow down the road has, we should do a rigorous analysis of our own needs and decide whether what the other guy has even works like it is supposed to and whether it will it help us. Just because X, Y and Z organizations are doing it is no guarantee that it will work in your organization. But, then that is the way of fads, of bandwagons. We surrender our objective appraisal to opinion and emotion.
So, how do we keep bias under control? The predictors of group success – those three measures mentioned above – are a good start for countering bias in-group decision making.
An unlikely source, the honeybee also suggests ways to stop bias. Research reveals that bees make good decisions when choosing a new location for a nest. Eighty percent of the time the bees choose the best site, an uncanny batting average of .800. Bee decision-making – democracy – gives us insights about preventing bias.
First, bees have a shared interest in and mutual respect for choosing the next nest. It is a life or death decision.
Second, there is no dominant leader. “Yes” men and “Nodders” need a boss to respond to. Absent the dominant leader, the group is free to debate openly and substantively. In this egalitarian group, there is no automatic deference to the gray heads in the hive or toward the alleged experts. Bee democracy is all about debate among well informed equals.
Third, bees seek diverse solutions. Everyone may “speak” his or her mind but everyone listens for the most convincing idea. It is through this respectful exchange that the group identifies a diverse set of options, freely shares the information among participants and considers and chooses the best option.
Bees may have limited social and emotional IQ but they do appear to respect other views; there’s no excluding a good idea because of a hidden agenda or a personal antipathy.
When we operate the way the bees do – an urgent decision to be made, mutual respect, open debate on different options among many engaged participants – bias cannot get a foot in the door.

© John Lubans 2015
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