How Hidden Bias or Prejudice Affects Decisions

By Dawna Jones

Humans are complex beings, and that complicates decision-making. Welcome to the world of bias and prejudice, where, even when you think you’re relying on rational thinking, there’s a good chance you’re not. Ingrained bias and prejudices override rational thinking. The table shows examples of hidden biases and how they sneak into thinking.

Common Ingrained Biases and Prejudices
Ingrained Bias or Prejudice Why It’s a Problem Example
Seeing yourself in an exceptionally positive light You overestimate your abilities. You always think you can get things done faster than you
actually do, which can create problems with project schedules.
Taking credit for success but not for failures If you don’t use failure as an opportunity to learn, you
are prone to repeating the same mistakes.
You’re quick to accept credit but prefer to avoid
acknowledging your failures. You might even accept credit where
it’s undeserved to bolster self-esteem and offset your
perceived failures.
Using your own personal interests to decide what is fair or
best for others.
Although you can easily see the effect of self-interest in
others, it’s harder to see its effects with your own
You can easily see how your colleagues are overloading their
teams with work, but you don’t see that you’re doing
the same thing.
Viewing members of a racial, ethnic, or stigmatized group as
less than those in the “in” group
You don’t recognize and, therefore, tend to deny
incidents of racism or sexism, hurting all groups.
You accept a female colleague’s ideas when they are
endorsed by a male peer (a testimonial is required), but tend to
reject them otherwise.
Failing to recognize hindsight as hindsight You blame decision-makers for not predicting unpredictable
When a decision to invest in a company results in a huge loss,
you point out where the decision-makers went wrong as though what
is obvious now was as clear at the time of the decision. It
Seeing others’ behavior as a reflection of their
character rather than the environment or situation
You blame the victim when things go badly and ignore valid
When whistleblowers report a company’s fraudulent action,
the company responds by vilifying the whistleblower rather than
turning attention to how the fraud was allowed to occur.

Everyone has biases that impact the decisions he or she makes. To offset probable bias, whether you’re aware of it or not, you deliberately remove the reasons that could prejudice your assessment. Note that you don’t need to give up your biases (some are so deep it would be impossible to do so): You just need to create a way to deal with implicit biases likely to distort the decision-making process.

Consider the hiring process: Each decision-maker has biases about a person’s appearance, sex, race, or size, for example. These biases lead you to assume that you already know about a person’s character or talent. Now suppose that you are hiring a new employee.

One applicant is tattooed everywhere, and you don’t like men or women with that many tattoos. Despite the fact that this applicant’s track record is impeccable, you’re not comfortable and don’t see him as a viable candidate. But you’re not the only decision-maker, so he advances to the short list.

To remove your bias against people with tattoos from the selection process, you decide to provide each prospective candidate with a work assignment typical of the assignments expected of someone in your employ. The submissions are intentionally submitted anonymously and then evaluated. Much to your surprise, your top choice was completed by the tattooed candidate. Your company hires him, and he goes on to add exceptionally high value to the company.