Avoiding Cognitive Bias in Meetings
Making Objective, Rational Group Decisions
Imagine that your boss has asked you to come up with products that exploit a new technology the company has developed. So, you ask your team members to research the market and brainstorm ideas, and you schedule a meeting to discuss them.
One team member, Serena, starts the meeting by making her proposal. She has sound statistics to back her idea up, and she explains why she thinks the product will be successful. Another team member, Sayed, puts forward his suggestion next. He pitches his product idea, and he has data from several focus groups to support his suggestion. Unfortunately, these are both complex products – you can only develop one idea or the other, not both.
As your team members discuss the options, it's clear that the majority prefers Serena's product. Many people "feel good" about it, and they believe that it would be the best way to use the organization's new technology.
You may not realize it but there's a good chance that your team members have made a biased decision in this meeting, simply because Serena presented her product first. This is an example of "cognitive bias."
In this article, we'll look at what cognitive bias is, we'll explore the various ways it can occur during meetings, and we'll outline strategies you can use to overcome it.
What Is Cognitive Bias?
In the early 1970s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman studied why people struggle to reason and judge objectively in certain situations. From this research, they developed the concept of cognitive bias, and, along with Paul Slovic, published their early findings in their 1982 book, "Judgment Under Uncertainty."
Cognitive bias can be defined as a set of predictable mental errors that arise from our limited ability to process information objectively. It can result in illogical and irrational decisions, and it can cause you to misjudge risks and threats.
For example, when you're presented with conflicting data, you might favor the information that supports your preconceptions. This is known as "confirmation bias." Or, you might unconsciously gravitate towards the argument or opinion that you hear first, which is known as "anchoring."
As you might imagine, these "thinking traps" can negatively affect your judgment and decisions, especially when you're making decisions as part of a group.
Avoiding Common Biases in Meetings
While you may be aware of cognitive bias, many people are not, and this makes group decision-making meetings particularly prone to problems with it. It's particularly important to avoid psychological bias in decision making, as the consequences of poor judgment and bad decisions can be extremely serious.
Clearly, a first step is to remind people of the different forms of cognitive bias before an important decision-making meeting, so that you can all guard against it.
However, there are other things you can do as well. Below, we've listed five of the most common types of cognitive bias, and we've outlined tools and strategies you can use to avoid or overcome each one.
1. Confirmation Bias
In his 1998 paper, researcher Raymond Nickerson defined confirmation bias as "seeking or interpreting evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations or a hypothesis in hand."
Put simply, many of us will automatically favor data that supports our preexisting ideas, and we may subconsciously reject data that goes against them. However, this leads us to take a narrow view of a situation, and it means that we may not be open to new opportunities or ways of thinking.
Overcoming Confirmation Bias
To overcome confirmation bias in meetings, make sure that you have a diverse group of attendees. Seek out team members who are assertive, have varying levels of propensity for risk and aversion to it, and won't be afraid to put forward their opinions.
Encourage everyone in the group to share ideas and constructively criticize the options that are on the table. Diversity and open discourse will help you make a more balanced decision.
2. Anchoring Bias
Anchoring bias leads people to rely heavily on the first piece of information that they hear, and it's particularly common in decision making and negotiation. Once you've heard "the anchor," you're likely to interpret it and make judgments based upon it.
A 1996 study found that anchoring occurs when people pay attention to, and focus on, the first argument that they hear. However, knowledgeable people tend to be less susceptible to it – this research also suggests that the more information you have about a topic or decision beforehand, the more readily you can avoid the effects of anchoring.
To avoid it, research topics or decisions objectively before your meeting takes place. Remember, your goal is to provide data that presents a well-rounded view of the issue.
3. Bandwagon Bias
Bandwagon bias is similar to groupthink. Here, the tendency is to form an opinion or take action because others have already done so. The probability of you "hopping on the bandwagon" increases as others adopt an idea.
Avoiding Bandwagon Bias
To avoid bandwagon bias, keep the number of people attending the meeting as low as sensibly possible. And use the Six Thinking Hats technique to look at an issue from all points of view, before making a decision.
If your group members are knowledgeable about the issue at hand, ask them to write their opinion down on a piece of paper before any discussion begins. This will give you a good idea of how everyone really feels, before there is any chance of groupthink occurring.
4. Mere Exposure Effect
According to Robert Zajonc's 1968 study, the mere exposure effect, or "familiarity principle," occurs when "repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus object enhances his attitude toward it." Other research has found that this type of bias can take place consciously or unconsciously.
Marketers often take advantage of the mere exposure effect: repeating advertisements with the same messages can make people feel more comfortable and familiar with a product or brand.
In a meeting, this bias can manifest itself as a preference for opinions, people or information that you've already seen.
Overcoming the Mere Exposure Effect
To avoid the mere exposure effect in meetings, think carefully about data, individuals or ideas that you're already familiar with. If you've encountered something before, even in passing, it's important to analyze why you might want to support it. Is it truly in line with what you think is best, or are you positive about it because it feels familiar and safe?
5. Hindsight Bias
In their 2012 paper, researchers Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs argued that hindsight bias occurs when people feel that a certain outcome was obvious and expected, but only after the event has taken place – put simply, when they look back on a decision, they feel that they "knew what would happen all along" (even though they didn't.)
Hindsight bias can be especially problematic when you want to understand why a decision went wrong, as it can be hard to look back objectively. It can also cause problems when you need to analyze or interpret results in business experiments, because you might view your findings as "predictable" once your tests are complete.
Overcoming Hindsight Bias
One of the best ways to overcome hindsight bias is to gain expertise. In a 2003 study, researchers found that the more knowledge people had about the task under consideration, the smaller the resulting hindsight bias would be.
To help avoid it, do what you can to increase your meeting participants' knowledge about the issue at hand, and about the industry as a whole, so that they can understand the task as part of a wider context. Encourage them to research the topic for discussion thoroughly, and take steps to build their expertise.
It can be challenging to overcome a cognitive bias. A 2014 study found that people may acknowledge that a bias exists but still use it to make decisions, and then claim to be objective in their assessment.
Do your best to watch out for biases in your own thinking and decision making: take your time; question your own thoughts, intentions and motivation; and guard scrupulously against these common thinking traps.
A cognitive bias is a flaw in our thinking, judgment or decision-making abilities that occurs when we view information through certain filters. It can manifest in many different ways during meetings, and it can lead to distortion, illogical interpretations and poor decisions.
To avoid cognitive bias in meetings, learn about its various forms.
Try to gather people from diverse backgrounds, especially when you need to make decisions, so that you can avoid groupthink. When your group members are knowledgeable about the topic being discussed, ask them to write their opinion down on paper before you start, and encourage them to build their expertise. Keep meeting numbers low to avoid a "bandwagon" effect occurring, and think carefully about ideas that you've encountered before.