Unconscious bias

Aug 03, 2020

Educating yourself about these biases as well as potential strategies for mitigation can help you avoid prejudice in your decision-making.

If there’s one thing the AEC industry relies on consistently, it’s the quintessential “gut feel.” Whether in terms of building design, hiring, marketing, or risk management, many firms rely on what feels right and seems like the best course of action. If you are making decisions based on your gut feel, you’re inviting unconscious bias to plague nearly every decision you make.

Bias is simply a prejudice or judgment made unfairly in favor of one path of thinking compared to another. Biases may be held by individuals, teams, or entire firms, and these biases typically fall into two categories, conscious (explicit) bias and unconscious (implicit) bias. While some of the most socially prevalent and emphasized biases regard ethnicity or race, biases can exist toward virtually any social characteristic including education level, age, weight, and many others.

While it is impossible to truly eliminate biases from your perspective as they are continually formed by your lifelong experiences, there are several strategies to mitigating their influence on your decision-making. Below are several of the most common biases prevalent in the AEC industry accompanied by strategies for mitigation.

  • Confirmation bias. The tendency for people to recall information that supports their own prior beliefs or thoughts on a subject. Effects: While a great majority of AEC professionals are logic- and evidence-driven decision-makers, confirmation bias severely skews and distorts this idealistic methodology simply because one piece of unbiased evidence will be interpreted differently by two individuals with varying backgrounds. While you may think your opinions are rational and impartial, your experiences will undoubtedly steer you to interpret evidence to reaffirm your initial perspective. Mitigation: The two main strategies for resisting confirmation bias are to avoid formulating conclusions and to consistently attempt to prove yourself wrong. When gathering and assessing a data set or problem, seek out facts and underlying circumstances instead of trying to generate hypotheses from incomplete information. By pivoting your position and seeking data that proves your initial guess wrong, you can flip confirmation bias on itself and become more objective.
  • Affinity bias. The inclination for people to connect more strongly with others who share similar backgrounds or experiences. Effects: This bias manifests itself most frequently in the hiring process as individuals are much more likely to prefer candidates with whom they resonate, regardless of the candidate’s unbiased merit. A recent study by Harvard Business School shows that minority job applicants that “whiten” their resume by deleting any references or allusions to their race have more than double the number of callbacks compared to the same “unwhitened” resumes. These results shed a disturbing light on our hiring practices throughout the United States: there is a strong and deep bias against minorities. It is up to each individual executive to course correct and identify this issue at its root – hiring. Mitigation: Because affinity bias runs far beyond the hiring process and influences closely held emotions like trust, friendship, and vulnerability, it is one of the most difficult biases to alleviate. The first and easiest recommendation is to take the time to establish common ground. First impressions are made swiftly and brashly, so suppressing initial impressions and searching for commonalities reduces tension and creates comfort. In the more specific sense of hiring, staffing a panel with a range of backgrounds to conduct interviews as well as being specific as to what characteristics constitute a “cultural fit” for your company help balance the effects of affinity bias.
  • Attribution bias. Attribution bias encompasses a wide array of misjudgments when people try to find reasons for their own or for others’ actions or behaviors. Our thoughts or opinions about behavior are rarely unbiased and are not representative of reality. Effects: One of the most common manifestations of attribution bias is called “Fundamental Attribution Error,” which is the tendency for individuals to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for negative behaviors observed in others while simultaneously over-emphasizing these explanations for positive behavior in themselves. In other words, when we are successful, we perceive it as a result of our own intelligence or moral character, while when others are successful, we perceive it as a result of the circumstances surrounding them that put them in that position (and often our own contributions to these circumstances). Mitigation: The best mitigation against FAE is simply to acknowledge that it exists and ask yourself if you may be falling prey to it. Raising your emotional intelligence will also greatly influence your ability to identify and combat FAE as well as any other cognitive biases. Particularly important elements of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy. Empathy breaks down the assumptions that accompany FAE and will allow you to see your coworkers and employees as complete individuals instead of a set of predisposed experiences.

Other common biases are the contrast effect, halo effect, and conformity bias. Each of these biases influence every thought and judgment that occur in our minds. Educating yourself about these biases as well as potential strategies for mitigation can help you avoid prejudice in your decision-making and better develop a truly rational, impartial, and unbiased perspective.

Mitchell Shope is a senior project engineer with JQ Engineering in Dallas, Texas. He holds a Master of Engineering degree from MIT in structural engineering and an MBA from the University of Texas. Contact him at mshope@jqeng.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.