By: Colonel (retired) Ken Gilliam
“Why do other people have cognitive bias, and I don’t?”
Have you ever found yourself asking this question? Might sound silly when you read it because we know that everyone has some cognitive bias. It’s just as real as refrigerator blindness. The difference is that when someone points at the ketchup on the front of the shelf, you see it and simply exhale and move on with your life. All too often in the workplace someone points it out, but your active denial still keeps you from seeing it.
As a leader, your subordinates and supervisors expect you to make good decisions. As an individual contributor, your team depends on you to make good decisions. Your bias, if unchecked, will keep you from making good decisions. Practice helps, but you will never be perfect.
I heard an interviewer ask Daniel Kahneman, a well-known cognitive scientist and author of “Thinking Fast and Slow,” how humans can overcome our own cognitive bias. His response was that, even though he wrote the book, he still couldn’t figure out how to control it. The irony is that you are probably really good at recognizing bias in others, which is helpful when you’re a leader or trying to convince others to believe in a new idea. But your team is also depending on you to make good decisions, and bias blindness can reduce the quality of those choices.
Take heart. There is no shame in having cognitive bias because we all have it, and there are steps you can take to make your self-view a little clearer. Here are four simple questions I use when making tough decisions to help detect my own bias:
1. How many ways can I be wrong?
Allowing yourself to be wrong is a difficult thing to do. I have two tricks that I have used over the years to allow myself to be wrong. First, I tell other people that I am often wrong. This opens the idea for them and me, and usually leads to a collaborative dialog about expectations, assumptions, and needed information. Second, I look back at my college transcript to remind myself that, over the long run, I was wrong about 15% of the time – at least according to my professors. For some of you in the top 5%, using your college grades is probably not going to help. You’ll need to look for other past information and instances when you were wrong. If you come up short, ask your parents.
2. Who can I trust to point out my bias?
As humans, we accept new information from trusted sources and are skeptical of any we do not trust. While your parents are good for pointing out where you were wrong in the past, they are probably one of the original sources of your bias, and therefore are probably not the top pick for recognizing it. Seek out someone who has a different life background than you and learn to trust them if you don’t already. They don’t look like you, they don’t act like you, and they don’t think like you. If you cannot muster up enough courage to ask them, then imagine what they might say your bias is for a particular subject or decision. You will be amazed how much you will see through their eyes.
3. Why do I think the way I think?
This is probably the hardest question to ask yourself, and even more difficult to answer. Looking at your own past and mentally mapping your experiences to your current bias is challenging and time consuming. But make no mistake that the way you think is linked to your life experiences. Successfully dissect it once and it will be easier to do in the future.
4. Is my decision based on the best evidence available or my gut instinct?
If you have evidence that leads to a logical decision, great start. If you are deciding on instinct or intuition, you are applying bias. You can deny it, but I recommend you re-read the first paragraph. Seek out evidence that points to a different decision and consider it fairly with all the other evidence, as opposed to discarding it because it does not fit your current way of thinking.
Go Forth and Conquer
I consider myself lucky to have a career that forces me to view the world through other peoples’ lenses. Every time I put myself in someone else’s frame of reference it provides an opportunity to gain new perspectives and work through decision problems. I’m also fortunate at Aimpoint Research to have a team that challenges me to examine my own bias because we openly talk about it during our design, development, and rehearsal processes.
In many ways, the four questions outlined above can create a sort of internal wargame to help you view the world differently and break down the echo chambers in your own mind. In my biased opinion, of course.
Ken Gilliam is Vice President of Predictive Analysis at Aimpoint Research where he builds systems and tools that fully capture the predictive power of complex data sets and leads the organization's capabilities in modeling and simulation. Ken also leads the team in wargame design and implementation. During his 27-year military career in the U.S. Army he gained extensive experience in analytics, systems design, modeling, and wargaming, including teaching Decision Analysis at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. He grew up in a farm community in South Georgia surrounded by watermelons, peanuts, cotton, and cattle.