Our biases impact us in ways we are mostly unaware. This is partly because they occur on a subconscious level, happening below the surface virtually undetectable to our conscious mind. In addition, we have a very difficult time admitting we might not have as much control as advertised – we are not truly steering the ship (so to speak) if our biases are secretly impacting our behavior and decisions. Thankfully, we are better at recognizing imperfections in those around us. And if we can see the presence of bias in others, perhaps we can begin to appreciate its existence in ourselves.
One fairly straight-forward example of bias comes to us via behavioral finance and is known as anchoring. When we anchor, we improperly use one reference point to judge the value of another. For example, while shopping online we might find a sweater originally priced at $80 now on sale for $40. When this happens, the retailer is anchoring us. That is, the retailer knows something we do not: Our brain automatically analyzes relative rather than absolute value. The sweater might be a rip-off even at $40 but we fixate on the difference between the sale price and its $80 anchor. Our mind has been manipulated and mistakenly thinks it is getting a great deal.
We love a good sale and not because we are exceptionally talented bargain shoppers. In every discount exists an anchor and our brain gets tricked into feeling good regardless of the true merit of a purchase.
Think of it another way. In the United States over the last eight years there was political deadlock in Washington D.C. A stubborn democratic president faced off against an equally ideological republican congress. Almost nothing got done. There was even a government shutdown due to the inability of both parties to work together. It seemed there might never again be discourse between Democrats and Republicans. That is, until a new anchor showed up in the form of Donald Trump.
Since Trump’s arrival, congress has passed unanimous sanctions on Russia, discussed potential movement on DACA, and even had light but notable dialogue on healthcare. With President Trump as the new anchor in town, the reference point has change – Democrats and Republicans are no longer focused on each other and the parties are engaging in across-the-aisle conversations. And it builds: Every time the president does something more egregious, Democrats and Republicans find greater commonality with one another.
After viewing anchoring in this context, perhaps we might admit that we each carry a little bias. Bias is hidden, deep beneath the surface where we cannot see, touch, or feel it. It is not something we are guilty of, it is innate and nothing to be embarrassed about. And if we can comprehend that bias is natural and normal – not some conscious thing we do or criminal act we commit – we might begin to work on it.
There are physiological reasons for bias, such as the way our brain is constructed and therein the role of the limbic system (i.e. emotion) in the decision making process. But that is far too much detail necessary for us to become more logical. Awareness is all that is needed.
Knowing about anchoring, we overcome it with a very simple question in the moment: Am I being anchored? Or we might create a new anchor to reframe the decision on our own terms. There is even the Foreign-Language Effect, which shows we are less susceptible to anchoring and other innate biases when using a foreign language; our brain “slows down” to convert information from one language to another and therefore is less prone to bias.
Like anchoring, many biases impact our performance. But with the research and knowledge available, we can change our involvement in the decision making process from manipulated to empowered. It turns out, if we are just a little more aware, we can vastly reduce the role of bias and truly own our choices and actions.