The biases that destroy work

Let’s take these one at a time, then bring them back together.

Availability bias

I will use Greg Satell (coming up on a future podcast episode of mine, actually!) and others here. Start with this link:

There’s a natural human tendency to overweight information that is most available to us. For example, reading statistics about automobile fatalities will do little to affect our driving behavior. However, when we pass a fatal accident on the road, we will naturally slow down and be more cautious. Direct observation feels real. Statistics don’t.

Psychologists call this tendency availability bias and it is amazingly common, even in professional settings where you would expect more deliberative decision making. Researchers have found that it even affects how investors react to analysts reports, how corporations invest in research and how jurors evaluate witness testimony. Other studies find that availability bias even affects medical judgments.

Got it.

Proof by example fallacy

I will take this one from Mark Manson’s Monday newsletter:

We read about corporate corruption at one notable company and assume that all companies, everywhere, must be corrupt.

And, of course, we see one cop beating up on one man (or, actually, a number of cops harming or killing people over the last few years) and our minds are instinctively drawn towards conclusions of police officers as a whole.

In logic, this is known as the “proof by example fallacy.” It’s the human tendency to take a single instance of something happening and unconsciously assume it must be true in all cases, everywhere. It causes a lot of misunderstanding and judgment in the world. And, unfortunately, the human mind defaults to it all the time.

OK. Next?


Here’s one study. Young children were randomly assigned to a red or a blue group, and they liked pictures of other kids who wore t-shirts that reflected their own group better.

Here’s another study. Adults were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” and subsequently fMRI studies noted hostility to outgroup members regardless of their race.

I think we all know about tribalism in the context of people screaming at each other about libtards and monsters on Facebook, and I think we broadly all know about confirmation bias too, but these studies show, in small part, how pervasive tribal thinking really is. When you think about how people miss sports so tremendously right now, part of that is boredom, yes. Part of it, maybe the bigger part of it, is the tribal nature of “THIS RIGHT HERE is MY squad.”

Now let’s bring in one or two visuals

I read this New York Times — libtard! — piece on “the cities we need” this morning. Some really good parts to it, but again, it’s all about how you perceive cities and urban living and the role of the young people right now. Everything is through some kind of bias filter. Still, look at these screen-grabs I made.

Now, it should be noted on this screen grab, I sent it to Blunder Years Episode 2 guest Mollie Bentley and she said Indian Hill is not a good example, because it’s super duper rich, and probably not the best representation of Cincy overall. Still, I think the broader message of the quote makes sense.

Now here’s the second grab:

OK, cool. Now let’s do some addition.

Add everything up

  1. Via availability bias, we overweight the information most readily available to us.
  2. Via proof by example fallacy, we see one or two things from a group and assign those behaviors to the entire condition of the group.
  3. Via tribalism, we love to “belong to” something or even “own” it in some way.
  4. Via how we live, at least in America and/or just urban America, we’re mostly surrounded by people like us, who work at similar places to us, whose spouses and children look like ours, who probably have the same general belief structure as us and earn within about 1–15% points of us.
  5. I have not even gotten into online behavior here.

In short: we group ourselves into tribal pens, and our brains largely fight against us being truly “woke” (yes, I use that term ironically) and fighting against assumption to find new fact or idea. We become lazy and insulated. This does not mean that we are not great. We can still be great, build companies, employ people, build amazing families, send beautiful children off into the world, etc. Greatness has been rampant for generations as well. But, when you add up all this psychology and look at housing trends and toss the Internet and the availability of any perspective to be affirmed into that mix, well, we’re pretty clustered and cloistered these days. Maybe we always have been and this time just seems more drastic, but it definitely seems more drastic right this second.

Oh, and how do we often work?

Oh, typically that would be silos.

Silos make a ton of sense in terms of brain science and functional expertise, but broadly most have argued they are a bad thing for organizational growth and knowledge flow.

Ironically one of the pre-eminent “silo-counters” of the last 10–15 years was “the open office,” but that’s dead as a doornail now because of COVID-19 and the aftermath.

Oh, and fun fact: business silos were actually predicted in 1513.

So there’s a lot of sequestration at work/home, and that’s more pronounced now because of COVID — so if you’re doing telework and walking around your neighborhood for some exercise, and you’re an affluent white person, I bet you don’t see a lot of minorities during the week. Maybe a few, but not commonly. And then your thinking is reinforced at work, and it’s reinforced by your preferred digital and televised news sources. The arc repeats and repeats.

Can we think outside of these bubbles?

Absolutely. It’s not comforting, nor is it easy, but we can do it, yes. I’ve been doing this podcast for a few months now, and I’ve had a similar conversation about breaking bubbles with different friends of mine, including Ben (works in finance), David (solo hustler), Mike (sales training), Eamonn (little bit of everything), Gabe (back-end email marketing), and Todd (tech).

My point is: a lot of people think about this stuff, including people much smarter than I. They realize it’s a problem. It’s just hard to get out of because given the choice between an argument/something uncomfortable and retreating to your cone of similarity bubble, you will usually choose the second one. That’s why silos persist too, even though silos crater more companies than they scale, writ large.

The obvious answers here are “read more,” and/or “talk to more people,” and/or “vary your news sources,” and/or “take someone from IT to lunch” or whatever. These are tropes and cliches at this point, but if you actively do these things, it can help reduce your biases and bubbles, yes. The actual hard step is getting out and doing these things as opposed to FOX News or NPR and/or lunch with the same people who always eat with, and/or gossiping with the same people you always gossip with, and/or 1465 Breckenridge Lane, where 1463 looks like you and 1467 looks like you…

… what is your take on biases and bubbles and reducing/preventing/alleviating them?

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