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Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | The intuition versus efficiency trade-off in managing biases

In a recent survey of nearly 800 board members and chairpersons, McKinsey Consulting found that respondents ranked “reducing decision biases" as their number one aspiration for improving performance. This increased focus on mitigating biases gains importance as many organisations are trying to build a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Social psychology deals with a specific set of biases that are elicited by the social context—the actual, implied, or imagined presence of others. The book Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People by social psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald is centred on biases regarding social categories of gender, race, age, class, sexuality, disability, religion, politics, nationality and the many other groupings that mark modern societies.

To develop an effective de-biasing strategy, one needs to develop a deep understanding of biases. Biases affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. This means that the person who is involved will rarely be aware of the biases. So, these biases are not accessible through introspection.

Existing research methodologies such as focus groups are inadequate in unearthing biases that affect one’s decisions. The Implicit Association Test developed by Banaji and Greenwald was one of the first attempts to create an appropriate testing methodology to unearth the non-conscious biases involved in one’s decision making.

Biases are predominantly evolutionary or social in origin. Millions of years ago, when hunting was predominantly the only job that humans did for a living, men were superior to women in doing the hunting activity. In the modern knowledge economy, holding on to views about male superiority is not acceptable. In his book Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality, Sudhir Kakar explores India’s sexual fantasies and ideals, the “unlit stage of desire where so much of our inner theater takes place". There is no doubt that in the modern world any behaviour based on these fantasies are unacceptable.

However, one should also be aware that memories and associations that are embedded in the human brain evolutionarily or through strong social conditioning cannot be eliminated overnight. Traditional interventions such as training programmes are helpful in creating awareness about biases. A recent study by Mike Noon says that “knowing about bias does not automatically result in changes in behaviour by managers and employees".

One of the most powerful techniques for de-biasing process-based decision-making are statistical decision systems. It is important to remember that the development of algorithmic models entails many potentially idiosyncratic, bias-prone assumptions and decisions. Data selection itself is prone to bias, confirmation bias—the selection of information that would tend to confirm our own expectations and business goals.

The biggest problem with many of the existing de-biasing strategies is that they are based on the belief that all biases are bad and are to be eliminated at all costs by bringing in more and more conscious, rational processes. Many do not realise that many of these rational, conscious processes are counterproductive.

Let us take the example of tackling the stereotyping bias: The tendency to typecast based on gender, race and ethnicity while hiring new employees. Some organizations have started the practice of masking the information about gender, race, and ethnicity at the stage of shortlisting the applications. But how do we ensure that stereotyping does not happen at the interview stage? Many of these strategies are good enough only to put off the problem to a later stage.

One needs to understand why humans have a tendency to stereotype. The book The Nature of Prejudice by Gordon Allport is regarded by many to be the seminal book on the nature of stereotyping. Allport wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends on it." This means stereotyping is an unfortunate by-product of categorisation, otherwise an extremely efficient process of the human brain.

As an employee gains more experience in a job, say recruiting, he or she tends to take quick decisions to recruit or not to recruit a candidate. One might say that he or she is being intuitive in hiring or rejecting a candidate. Intuition is nothing but the brain using several shortcuts developed over years of experience to evaluate a candidate in a matter of a few minutes. It is also true that some of the shortcuts recruiters use are influenced by biases developed over the years. So what is the solution? Kill intuition and replace it with more and more rational processes?

Replacing a learnt activity, an activity out of one’s non-conscious brain, now with a load of conscious processes leads to ‘choking’. It often happens in sports. When too much consciousness comes into play, a player starts to consciously think each step and ultimately leads to an inferior decision—a bad shot. He or she becomes worse than an amateur in playing that shot. This is exactly what will happen if we introduce more conscious, rational processes to deal with biases.

Biases have to be managed at a non-conscious level. It is not going to be easy to erase thoughts that have accumulated over a long period of time. Care should be taken that while eradicating biases one should not make decision-making much more inefficient.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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