Are your decisions biased? Of course not…
The world as we knew it changed significantly in the first quarter of 2020 as almost every country in the world has been impacted to a greater or lesser extent by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
There have been many lessons learned in almost all aspects of life and how we live our lives. In this blog, I want to home in on what I have learned from the pandemic at a personal decision-making level.
As an architect, a core part of our work is creating a context for decision-making, to support our colleagues and clients in making key decisions that they can trust.
What the pandemic has highlighted, in significant parts of the population, is that our minds can trick us when it comes to decision-making, and we can fall foul of inherent biases. We can unwittingly fall foul of these biases, which can impact the quality of our decisions and ultimate outcomes.
If you spend any time on social media (I know, I probably spend too much time there), especially around the fringes of discussion of the pandemic, one of the comments you will see frequently is, “Covid isn’t really that serious, I had it and it was like a cold”.
On an individual level, it is hard to argue with that. However, what the individual reveals here is a survivorship bias. I survived, so it must be OK. A similar bias is the availability heuristic, “My friend got Covid, and they were fine”.
This type of thinking can occur when it comes to decision-making. An architect could make a decision and there is a positive outcome, so the assumption is that the same decision will create a positive outcome again.
Another bias, one that is very familiar in the technology world, is pro-innovation bias. What you and I may well call hype!
Public health policy in the management of the pandemic has almost certainly suffered from pro-innovation bias where proponents have focused on a specific aspect of pandemic management and the champions have overvalued the usefulness and undervalued the limitations.
The vaccine rollout is almost certainly a great example of this (for the avoidance of doubt as a biochemist and geneticist I believe vaccines are one of the greatest medical innovations in history).
The majority of people have experience with vaccines that are very highly effective, such as the measles or polio vaccines.
Public health policy in many countries placed vaccines front and centre of the pandemic response and failed to educate the wider public on the limitations of a vaccine that was probably 60-70% effective, rather than 99%. This led to a collapse in confidence in the vaccine programme amongst a significant minority of the population.
I am sure that you and I have similar experiences in the world of technology. The hype cycle is real.
As an architect, we can play a crucial role in damping down the overvalued usefulness and helping the limitations and the true application be better expressed.
Another example to share from the world of social media debate is how protagonists make an argument. When someone takes a position, for example, “vaccines are dangerous and untested”, it can significantly influence how they interpret data, comments, articles, and events.
What the mind does, it looks for confirmation of our position, a confirmation bias.
I am sure you and I think we are wonderfully open-minded, and it is hard as avoiding confirmation bias means we have to challenge and question ourselves and our model of the world all of the time.
When an architect makes a decision, they are more likely to subconsciously seek out confirmation of the decision than evidence that the decision was poor. No one prefers to be wrong.
Finally, some of the most heated debates online in relation to the pandemic response are the ‘data arguments’. Pro and anti-lobbies create ever more detailed analyses to support their point of view, more often than not losing sight of the wood for the trees.
There is a simple example of the underlying bias at play. If you asked me for the price of something and I said about £10, you would probably think OK.
Instead, if I said £9.83 or £10.27 it is likely that in your mind the price would be much more credible and real to you as it is more precise. This greater level of confidence or belief can be misleading. In the mind, the greater level of precision is associated with a greater level of accuracy, although in reality, the precise prices are still about £10.
This is known as the precision fallacy or information bias.
There is an assumption that more information is better, that precision is accuracy. This thinking can have two impacts. It can delay decision-making as more information is gathered, although, in reality, that information does not increase the quality of the decision-making, or even worse can increase confidence levels in a poor decision.
This sometimes plays out in programmes of work or proposed changes. Indeed, it is sometimes weaponised to avoid making a commitment to a change. The desire to either create greater precision or desire for more precision in making a decision can end up creating significant delays to a programme of work with no actual advantage.
Survivorship, precision fallacy, pro-innovation and confirmation. A handful of biases that almost certainly fool you and me every day.
As an architect what are the protections and counters to these innate, sub-conscious processes?
The good news is that the most important remedy has already occurred. By reading this far you are now aware that these biases may be impacting your decision-making and so you can make a conscious effort to compensate for them.
There are several ways you can address and counter the bias, and perhaps one of the simplest, if not always the most comfortable is to switch mindset from “What is right with this?”, to “What is wrong with this?”. It can take a little bit of effort and mental gymnastics to do this, as generally, we don’t like being wrong, but it can be a great first step in addressing any biases we have built into an outcome.
Another remedy is to syndicate your decision-making. Work through your decisions with a ‘Red Team’ who is there to challenge your decision-making process. A Red Team can support you in your, “What is wrong?” quest and a Red Team approach can be more effective than a ‘committee’ style approach as you can get a lot of competing viewpoints in a committee.
One remedy to the precision bias is to constantly check in with yourself, “How will more information change the outcome?”
One thing that you may notice is that the more emotional your response to a challenge in this process, the more likely it is that the underlying decision may have a bias in it.
Have an effective review process where your decisions are reviewed by a peer who is independent of your programme of work.
The final thing I would recommend is to understand more about biases and how they can affect all aspects of your decision-making and understanding of the world. It is a fascinating insight into how our brains work (and fail us when we need them most!).
Enterprise Blueprints is a specialist IT Strategy and Architecture consultancy helping clients create business value by solving complex IT problems. If you would like to discuss how we can help you to advance your platform thinking, bolster your operational resilience, accelerate your cloud migration programme, drive out costs from your legacy estate, or accelerate your digital transformation then please contact [email protected]