Having studied and written about cognitive bias I was presented with the following questions by an expert in change and risk management
- Isn't the discussion of cognitive bias without a concomitant understanding of organisational values and strategy meaningless?
- Can't bias tendencies be qualitatively measured and then corrected by collective cultural change?
- Are there organisational strategies which can correct cognitive bias?
The inquiries raise some interesting issues but show the need to understand that cognitive bias is unlike typical bias such as religious, gender or political bias which are acquired by social environment and are learned traits. ( The debate over whether racial bias has some inherent brain evolutionary component continues)
Cognitive bias is not exclusively a learned trait or acquired characteristic in the typical meaning of the word bias. Cognitive bias is an inherent way of thinking and as humans we are hardwired to think in these ways regardless of environment as the work of Kahneman Tversky , Areily and many others have shown. Even so, we can present information and posit questions which will minimize the occurrence of the flawed thinking or create awareness so we can avoid the errors of the bias. Color blindness cannot be corrected by environment but we can eliminate the use of colors when performing actions to minimize mistakes attributable to the trait. Cultural and social environments which reflect values and philosophy are crucial to change but they have no ability to directly impact cognitive bias just as they will not cure color blindness. There is a fascinating example of a hard wired perceptual error in hearing called the McGurk effect (see http://bit.ly/29qAmOJ ) which also cannot be influenced by values or philosophy but can be impacted by requiring written communication in addition to verbal interaction.
A recent excellent article in Harvard Business Review (1) titled "Designing a Bias-Free Organization" highlights the need to critically evaluate processes and use effective behavioral design to mitigate the effects of traditional biases. The same can be done for cognitive bias.
As research continues we may be able to further understand the nature of cognitive bias and means to intervene. Some new research is showing that even perceptual bias and racial biases can be influenced in childhood so as to minimize their impact (2,3) Organizational behavioral design holds promise for the future but using techniques to change organizational values and philosophy will in and of themselves have little impact. Organizational operational policies and procedures, using behavioral design will likely have a profound impact on cognitive bias by minimizing the interactions and situations where it is most likely to manifest. I am a believer in the culture of safety and institutional values which promote employee engagement and transparency as a very valuable tool to effect change. Unfortunately, organizational values and philosophy will only indirectly and minimally impact cognitive bias unless accompanied by operational and communication changes. By using both techniques, values and philosophy change combined with behavioral design, we can enhance performance, efficiency and effectuate meaningful long term salutary changes.
- Designing a Bias-Free Organization, Gardiner Morse, HBR, JULY–AUGUST 2016 ISSUE http://bit.ly/29M2UGI
- RECONSIDERING THE MCGURK EFFECT Vesna Mildner and Arnalda Dobrić Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Department of Phonetics, University of Zagreb, Croatia http://bit.ly/29pudWK
- Kelly, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Gibson, A., Smith, M., … Pascalis, O. (2005). Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Developmental Science, 8(6), F31–F36. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.0434a.x
Nicolas Argy, MD, JD
Copyright © 2016 Nicolas Argy