Four common psychological biases in the workplace


People often hire people they have a strong affinity with, but diverse workplaces produce a better outcome. (fotostorm via Getty Images)

We like to think we are being rational and logical, but in reality, we are continually under the influence of cognitive biases. These biases, which we all fall prey to, influence the way we think and sway our beliefs, decisions and judgements every day, including at work.

Our brains receive huge amounts of information that we need to navigate the world around us. However, processing this information takes enormous effort – and it’s simply not possible to evaluate every detail when forming judgements.

To simplify and speed up this process, we rely on mental shortcuts called heuristics. So instead of considering all the relevant information when we make an inference or decision, we are forced to use a snippet of the available information.

Read more: From four-day weeks to pregnancy rights – What workers could expect to see in 2024

Essentially, these mental shortcuts allow us to quickly reach a ‘good enough’ conclusion. For example, to decide whether someone is suitable for a job. But often, we overlook more relevant information and misunderstand events, facts and even people – which can lead to unfair stereotyping and bad decisions.

Here are four of the most common cognitive biases that we experience in the workplace.

Affinity bias

If you’ve ever ‘clicked’ with someone who is similar to you, you may have experienced affinity bias. This is the tendency to favour people who share similar interests, backgrounds and experiences with us. Because of this, we feel more comfortable around people who are like us and unconsciously reject those who are different.

Multiple studies have found that affinity bias is common when making hiring decisions. Although diverse workforces are more likely to be profitable, we still hire people who are like ourselves if given the opportunity to select between different, equally qualified applicants.

Read more: Can your employer force you to go back to the office?

Often, this unconscious bias is expressed as a preference for the similar candidate because of “culture fit” – which can lead to discrimination. For example, just 7% of Fortune 500 Europe companies and 5.8% of the Global 500 are led by women. Black employees hold just 1.5% of top management roles in the UK private sector – a figure that has increased just 0.1 percentage points since 2014. People with disabilities have to apply for 60% more jobs than those without.

“So many recruitment decisions are based on a ‘gut instinct’ or what feels intuitively right, and this is a real problem,” says Jonny Gifford, research adviser at the CIPD. “We like to think we can spot talent, but insights from behavioural science show that our decision-making is actually highly prone to bias.”

To address affinity bias when hiring, recruiters need to actively seek diversity and question why they’re drawn to someone – and ask whether it is really based on their experience and skill.

We all have bad days at work. So it's unfortunate if those coincide with an assessment.

We all have bad days at work. So it’s unfortunate if those coincide with an assessment. (Joos Mind via Getty Images)

Recency bias

Recency bias is a memory bias that means we favour recent events over historic ones. We tend to place more importance and focus on recent events, for example, when providing feedback at work.

Performance reviews can be a helpful way to assess someone’s progress, identify their achievements and look at how they can improve and develop. However, recency bias means that we assign disproportionate weight to recent events or experiences – both good and bad – which can compromise the fairness and accuracy of a review.

Read more: Why employers need to rethink the benefits of Christmas parties

So if an individual has been an excellent employee for years but made a mistake two months ago, it’s likely that this mistake could unfairly overshadow their previous good work.

To overcome this bias, it can help to give regular feedback at different points throughout the year. When carrying out a review, try to keep mistakes in perspective, and look at someone’s overall performance.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental Attribution Error is a social psychology concept that describes our inclination to judge other people’s behaviour on their personality characteristics, rather than external, situational factors beyond their control. This can lead us to unfairly misinterpret people.

For example, if someone has a tendency to send short, slightly terse emails, we tend to attribute this to their personality and perhaps assume they are rude. However, it’s possible that they are overwhelmed by a full inbox and only have time for short replies.

Read more: How job shares could narrow the gender gap in top jobs

We might assume that someone who is late for work is lazy or disorganised, but the fact is that they may have childcare problems in the morning – and often work overtime to catch up. It’s not easy to stop making snap judgements about people because we often make them unconsciously, but it can help to focus on objective facts. Before deciding if someone is unpleasant, consider the environmental factors that may be at play like their workload or problems at home.

Contrast bias

Contrast bias, or contrast effect, occurs when we perceive the difference between two things – or people – to be greater or lesser than it actually is. For example, we might perceive an expensive product to be cheaper when it’s presented next to a more expensive product – even if it’s still not a good buy.

This kind of bias can also affect how we assess workers. When hiring, we might find ourselves comparing one candidate to another, instead of assessing them individually to see how well their skills and experience match the job role on offer. As a result, we end up with an inaccurate perception that can make us judge candidates positively or negatively. To tackle contrast bias, focus on each candidate individually and their ability to perform the job above other characteristics, such as their background, gender or appearance.

Watch: State legislators debate 4 day work week

Download the Yahoo Finance app, available for Apple and Android.