You cannot eliminate your biases

Biases Word Cloud

You might say: “I’m not biased”. Don’t believe me? Try answering these three questions, known as the Cognitive Reflection Test.

(1) A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? _ cents

(2) If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _ minutes

(3) In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _ days

Give it a try before reading the answers (at the bottom of the article).

Sorry, you simply can’t eliminate your biases, but you can become more aware of them and so, from that awareness, look to reduce them in your decision making.

Today we will look at increasing our awareness

Cognitive Reflection Test

In a survey of 3,428 people who took the test above:

  • 33% missed all three questions.
  • 83% missed at least one of the questions.
  • Only 48% of MIT students sampled were able to answer all the questions correctly.

How did you do? (Answers below)

Hopefully, this gave you an awareness of your own biases and you are interested in reading on.

Awareness of biases

The “bat and ball” test was devised by Daniel Kahneman, who, with Amos Tversky, developed a powerful body of work around the idea of Heuristics.

Whilst one can simplify a definition of Heuristics to “mental shortcuts”, it is key to recognise that those mental shortcuts also reflect our biases often unconscious. They are deeply ingrained to we can’t eliminate them, but we can build awareness and use tools to recognise where we are using the and then, literally, “think differently“.

Why understanding biases is vital for leaders

I’ve studied this field for years, not only as I find it fascinating, but also in my professional role as a sounding board, I come from a coaching mindset that the client has the answers within them. I only occasionally give advice from my own experience and expertise, and then only after deep listening, followed by reflecting and probing with the client from what they told me.

In that “deep listening”, it is critical both that I recognise where my client is using mental shortcuts. It is also at least equally critical for me as a coach to be aware of my own biases and then use tools and methods to move past them and so, as Stephen Covey said in “habit #6”, to “listen with the intent to understand rather than the intent to reply”.

So, to truly bring awareness to and work through your own mental shortcuts and biases, hire a coach or sounding board who can support you.

At the same time, we can all do a lot of this work ourselves, so today I will share some simply background on such biases from the work of Kahneman, by curating an article on this below.

Reading and watching more on Heuristics

For further reading and viewing, here are five pieces that will give you a rounded awareness of the field, to begin with. I hope you find a passion to study this as I have, it brings great awareness and understanding of huge value to us for our personal lives as well as those we serve through our leadership:

Now for the curated repost, and note that it lists no fewer than ELEVEN types of biases we have! :

Reposted from an article in 2015 by Owen Heisler, College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta


To start, I’d like you to quickly answer these two questions:

1: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. If the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

2 : Which is more common – words starting with a ‘k’ or words with ‘k’ as the third letter?

Exploring how we think about such questions started ‘behavioral economics’ and won Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize. This school of thought is also an opportunity to gain valuable insight into how we currently practise medicine, and how medicine might evolve to improve patient care.

Two ways of thinking

The basic idea is that there are two ways of thinking, referred to as Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 is instinctive, automatic and emotional, and relies on mental shortcuts known as heuristics. Type 2 is slow, logical and deliberate. We have limited capacity for Type 2 thinking and if relied on, we would get little done in a day. Fortunately, our preference for Type 1 thinking in general serves us well. The challenge is that over-reliance on the intuition and rules of thumb inherent with Type 1 thinking can lead us astray.

Mental shortcuts associated with Type 1 thinking are commonly referred to as biases – a term which unfortunately comes with a negative connotation. I prefer to think of these shortcuts as simple realities of how we all think and make decisions. Shedding light on biases enhances our opportunities to make better decisions, and helps us to use our Type 2 energy wisely. Here are some of the many biases in play every day:

  • Confirmation bias – we place extra value on evidence consistent with our favored belief. Sometimes when a diagnosis is made in a patient, we may ignore signs and symptoms that do not confirm our working diagnosis.
  • Hindsight bias – when we know the outcome, it is often hard to review prior events fairly with less acknowledgment of the role of chance. This is especially prevalent when expert opinions are provided in the complaints department (though we do take this into consideration).
  • Status quo bias – we prefer the status quo. This is especially a challenge in change management.
  • Present bias – we prefer immediate rather than long-term gains – again a change management challenge.
  • Loss aversion bias – we feel losses more acutely than gains, making us more risk averse when considering losses than rational calculations would suggest.
  • Escalation of commitment and sunk-cost biases – future courses of action are disproportionately weighted on what we have already done leading us at times to continue to ‘throw good after bad’.
  • Primary attribution bias – when in situations of conflict, we attribute our position to our context and the position of those we are in conflict with to their underlying personality, ignoring their context as being worthy of consideration.
  • Anchoring bias – we root decisions in an initial value, whether it is fair or not.
  • Controllability bias – we believe we can control outcomes more than we actually can, causing us to often misjudge the risks of an action.
  • Outcome bias – we tend to over-reward the results of a decision and under-reward the quality of process used to make the decision. When things happen by chance, a risky poorly-made decision may now be over-valued and repeated in the future (and vice versa when a poor outcome by chance following a well-supported decision becomes undervalued).

The more we know about biases and how they affect decisions and interactions, the better our own decisions will be. Considering biases helps us better understand the position of others (such as marketers), and provides us with strategies on how to best advance evidence-informed points of view. It is not reasonable to think one can simply overcome their own biases by sheer will.

Some practical things to consider:

  • Ensure broad options and futures when considering important decisions
  • Consider using reminders, algorithms, and checklists – they can facilitate better Type 1 decisions
  • Listen to people with different points of view – respectful disagreement and disconfirmation are proven ways to ensure broadened perspectives (remember not to attribute the position of the person with the person themselves)
  • Dedicate time every day for reflection – even in stressed and busy environments, the time invested can pay great dividends in the quality of subsequent decisions

As for the two questions at the start of my Parapet; how many of you thought the cost of the ball was $0.10 – or at least were tempted when first looking at the question? The right answer is $0.05 which usually requires a bit of Type 2 thinking. Also, the letter ‘k’ is twice as common in the third position of a word as the start. Since most people can more easily recall words beginning with ‘k’, the majority of people get this wrong, and even those that get it right do not recognize the extent of the difference. This behavior is known as availability bias… and may be something to reflect on next time you make a quick diagnosis in the middle of a busy day.

Cognitive Reflection Test Answers

Ok. so the curated article above gave the answer to the bat and ball test, but here are all three answers:

(1) 5 cents (not 10)
(2) 5 minutes (not 100)
(3) 47 days (not 24)

Also published on Medium.

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