How broader horizons can straighten out bias

Broadening our horizons – as well as our work practices – can help us overcome automatic assumptions that skew our thinking.

Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” 

That was in 1869, and many insights that have emerged from research since then confirm the accuracy of Twain’s view. Indeed, a lot has been written about the human condition and the biases that afflict us all, regardless of background or culture.

Many of our biases derive from the simple rules of thumb – known as heuristics – that we develop from an early age. This learning and discovery process frees us up from the need for deep thinking and deliberation on every single issue. Essentially, it allows us to work on automatic pilot when confronted with a range of decisions and actions.

Professional Development: Professional Ethics: a practical guide: designed for finance professionals who need to gain an understanding of ethics.

While these rules of thumb make life easier, they can also have negative consequences when they impair us from seeing, deciding and doing the right thing. They can easily turn into biases, such as stereotyping, that impair our moral vision. We can end up doing the wrong thing even by our own standards and we may not even realise it. For example, we might discriminate against women, older people and those from different backgrounds because of the moulds we have created about their group characteristics, despite a lack of evidence to support these preconceived ideas. 

“Many of our biases derive from the simple rules of thumb that we develop from an early age.”

So, how can we de-bias in situations where automatic thinking is morally perilous? Mark Twain suggested travel as an antidote. Fortunately, in most countries today, there is great diversity in society, so we don’t necessarily need to travel far to encounter differences. Increasing contact with those who are not like us helps us create new associations in our minds and can reduce our biases. 

In the workplace, we have other ways to deal with biases:

Devil’s advocates

Assign someone to question assumptions, frames, information and decisions. Remember that we tend to see only some potential consequences and totally miss others due to overconfidence in our own ability and morality. This is something we can even test ourselves. If you think a certain course of action is the best, give the same attention and consideration to its opposite and analyse all possible consequences.

Psychological strangers

Strangers are uncomfortable; we prefer those who are like us. We are also more likely to excuse or rationalise unethical behaviour from our group members than outsiders, so sometimes asking a close colleague to review the ethicality of our decisions may not yield the best outcomes.

Getting views from those who are not like us can help us consider different perspectives and better appreciate wider consequences and their effects. And if “everyone around here is doing it”, then asking those around us for an opinion will probably not help to identify problematic thinking.

Recalibrating our longstanding rules of thumb might not be easy, but it’s worthwhile in the interests of true objectivity.

Read next: The eyes have it: why we're more ethical when we're being watched

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December 2016
December 2016

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