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Managing the 'B' Word in Government

The ‘B’ word… Bias. It’s a word that’s been permeating meetings around city halls more frequently during the last year of GovEx’s engagements with cities. It’s impossible to be a data-informed organization without at least considering bias. That means understanding different types of bias, how it can affect organizational decision making, and what governments can do about it. Cities are recognizing the need to be more thoughtful about bias, particularly cognitive bias, when analyzing data and working through the decision-making process in groups.

In this post, I’ll define cognitive bias, share some common types, and discuss some easy steps to mitigate cognitive bias in your organization.

What is cognitive bias?

The word bias is often used in the context of racial bias or gender bias, but the term has a more general meaning as well. Cognitive biases are patterns of thinking that lead us to prefer one thing over another, especially when that preference is illogical. Biases are what happen when our minds take a mental shortcut and lead us astray. We’re often not even aware when this is happening. As individuals or a group of people we sometimes take wrong turns in our analysis or discussions, but are none-the-wiser. The good news is that by learning what these biases are, we can take a step toward combating them.

What are common types of cognitive bias?

According to Buster Benson and John Manoogian’s research and categorization, there are a lot of cognitive biases; 168 to be exact. Instead of trying to memorize all the types of bias, it’s better to get comfortable with a few and learn to recognize bias situationally. Here are three types of bias they we see frequently in our work with governments:

  1. Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias occurs when we form an opinion or understanding, and then over time we see more and more evidence that confirms it. Studies show that we discount information that contradicts what we believe and are more accepting of things that make us say “I knew it!” Confirmation bias is a fundamental impediment to reasoning, because it challenges us to let go of our preconceived notions, and open up to the possibility that things have changed, and that our mental models have been incorrect. Government can tend to be risk-averse; in a strange way, this can lead us to be wrong.
  2. Anchoring Bias: When we start a discussion about numbers with an estimate, that initial figure shapes our thinking. Imagine that I asked one set of people “What do you think the percentage of left handed people is? Is it greater or less than 25%?” Then, I asked a second group the same question but instead said “greater or less than 2%.” It’s a simple fact of human cognition that the guesses of the first group will be higher. Knowing this, we can exercise caution when we discuss estimated numbers. One specific version of this is when we include in our analysis discussion of historical data. So often, we start by asking “well, what did this number look like last year?” The assumption here being that it couldn’t have changed all that much. Be careful of reasoning in this way. If the analysis is showing that things have changed, anchoring to the way things were previously can lead us astray.
  3. Sunk Cost/Commitment Escalation Bias: We invest in things we’ve already expended resources on. This happens when we have set down a certain path and invest time, energy, or money. If things aren’t going our way and we are faced with the choice of walking away or keeping going, we’re more likely to stay committed because we tell ourselves that the initial investment of resources will go to waste. In government, this fallacy often occurs when a policy is not producing the results we would like to see, or when we have staked political capital or pride on a decision. It can be a challenge to get to a mindset that identifies failure, embraces it for the lessons it offers, and takes the opportunity to cut our losses and move on to something better.

What can we do about cognitive bias?

We know implicitly that there is work to do to mitigate cognitive bias, but it’s not always apparent what actions governments can and should take. After discussing cognitive bias and mitigation with our city partners, a few strategies stood out:

  1. Accept the “Chief Contrarian” as part of the team: Playing devil’s advocate can be enjoyable for those who naturally take on this role. It can also serve as a helpful counterpoint to lines of discussion that could let in cognitive biases. Clarify this role in your group and empower the Chief Contrarian to push back in a productive way, ensuring others are thinking logically and letting data guide the discussion instead of gut instincts. Be sure that you’re switching up who fills this role so no one group member gets too comfortable in the position and several folks have the opportunity to test out their skills.
  2. Establish formal processes for dissent and disconfirming evidence: Having an established process with specific checkpoints to share differing opinions privately or publicly with a group is a great way to combat cognitive bias. Not everyone processes information in the same way and some people may feel uncomfortable disrupting the flow of conversation with contrary opinions or facts. Being clear about when the group will take a step back to discuss where biases may be affecting the decision-making process or providing opportunities to discuss data that may be conflicting with group members’ thoughts and feelings ensures that your group is proactive in mitigating bias.
  3. Ask generative questions: Generative questions are questions that open up the possibility for broader discussions and demonstrate curiosity and interest. They are a frequent practice for appreciative inquiry organizations. They explore things like “how might we,” “what would it take,” or  “what if?” Generative questions help to ensure that conversations aren’t as likely to be dictated by cognitive biases. They provide a different way to approach decision making.

Has your organization been talking about cognitive bias? What strategies have worked for you? Does your organization want to learn more about cognitive bias? GovEx has strategies for managing cognitive bias training! Contact govextraining@jhu.edu to learn more.

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