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Take a moment to look at the photo below and, as quickly as you can, imagine an answer to these three questions:

💼 What sort of job does this person have?

⚡ Does this person like to take risks?

🧠 How intelligent is this person?

So, what did you think about the woman above? For the record, that is Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley. Here are the facts:

  • 💼 Stephanie is a techie and entrepreneur. She pioneered information technology in the 20th century.
  • ⚡ She is a steely risk-taker. She operated under a male name and purposefully employed predominantly women until the UK made it illegal!
  • 🧠 The girls’ school Stephanie attended didn’t teach mathematics so she crashed classes at the neighboring boys’ school to feed her thirst for knowledge.
    We know what you’re thinking – how on earth were you meant to guess that? And what does it say about you if you were way off the mark?

We believe ourselves to be rational thinkers but often we are not. Our brains are just too good at filling in the blanks especially for information about people. We have evolved cognitive biases to make thousands of quick decisions without thinking about them.

According to 40 years of research in cognitive psychology, our brain is perfectly suited for quickly filtering huge amounts of information, prioritizing, categorizing, and summarising our surroundings for us.

But making purely rational decisions are time-consuming, as they involve weighing potential costs against possible benefits. We are often limited by the amount of time we have to make a choice – as well as the amount of information we have available.

In the 1950s, the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon first suggested that while people try to make rational choices, our judgment is limited by cognitive bias.

Our unconscious mind has evolved to work off of instinct rather than analysis and makes split-second assumptions and decisions without our awareness – this is what we refer to as cognitive bias.

So, why do we take these mental shortcuts? Here, are three reasons behind our cognitive biases:

1. Heuristics
We favor useful shortcuts that tend to work in most cases. You probably make thousands of decisions every day – most of them unconscious. What should you have for breakfast? What should you wear today? Should you drive or take the bus? This allows us to make such decisions with relative ease without a great deal of agonizing.

👉 Example: Should you drive or take the bus to work? You may recall that there is road construction along the standard bus route. You’ve tried this before and you were delayed. So, you decide it will result in a delay today, too. Instead, you simply leave a little earlier and drive to work on an alternate route. Pretty handy!

2. Error management
Error management theory gets at the idea that our biased perceptions are related to the associated “cost” of having a perception that puts us at a disadvantage. We would rather make an error that keeps us safe and happy.

👉 Examples: perceptions about relationships are thought to be down to error management wired into us by sexual selection:

Why is it that, throughout the ages, people have often overestimated how sexually interested someone is in them? Theorists say that it was less costly to reproductive success to make many false-positive errors (“They want me! I must throw myself at them!”).

On the other hand, once you’re in a relationship, it’s less costly to make many false-negative errors about a potential partner’s commitment to their relationship (“They don’t invest enough time in this relationship, my hypothetical child and I deserve better!”).

3. Artifacts
Occasionally, we will be presented with a new or high-complex task that our brain doesn’t know how to solve. People tend to respond irrationally and they’ll try to create some kind of meaning out of the situation they see.

👉 Example: Probability calculations seem to be an area that our brains struggle with. According to one study, three-quarters of medical doctors misinterpreted the meaning and application of “survival rates”. These probability statistics have been misused in interpreting results, and frequently published in medical journals which perpetuated the incorrect information. Pretty bad, right?

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The bottom line?

We’re all biased. It’s just science! And it’s there for a good reason: to keep us alive. The tricky thing about bias is that it can influence our decisions. So it’s important to be aware of them.

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