It has been argued that cognitive biases are the root cause of many problems in modern society, from stereotype formation to belief in pseudoscience. To build great companies, this is clearly something we want to avoid in the recruitment process. In this short article, we will explore how long-term potentiation and the dual process theory can help us understand why we all are prone to have biases and how we can avoid (or at least become aware of) them.
If cognitive biases are so harmful, why do we all have them? Now you might be thinking that I am wrong, because you don’t have any biases. Great, then this article is for you! If you consider yourself a human being, you can be sure that you actually do have biases, but the first step to reducing them is to become aware of them, we will get back to that.
In short, cognitive biases are byproducts of cognitive processing limitations. A design flaw of the human mind some might say, or a design feature, depending on your perspective. No matter what you call them, they exist because of the way the human brain has evolved, and therefore, everyone has them! Most features of the brain serve evolutionary adaptive functions, and most of these functions are domain specific. Unfortunately, some functions do not generalize well to other domains and are prone to produce biases when applied in the “wrong” context.
The two types of cognitive processes
The dual process theory is heavily supported in psychological research and suggests that there are two distinct types of cognitive processes, the implicit and the explicit one. The implicit process is fast, unconscious and demands little energy. In the implicit process, we use mental shortcuts, or heuristics, which serve as adaptive mechanisms that save time and effort in everyday decision-making and problem solving. These heuristics are great, we wouldn’t get much done if we were busy consciously analyzing every single stimulus that our brain receives from our senses (in fact, it would be impossible). The explicit process is slower, conscious and analytical, but demands more energy. This process is what you would use when solving a math problem that you have never encountered before. Biases are most common in the implicit process, this is partly because we are more prone to believe that two correlating variables have a causal relationship when we use the implicit process. In reality, even if two variables correlate almost perfectly, that does not mean that there is a causal relationship between them. For example, between the years 2000-2009, the correlation between divorce rate in Maine and per capita consumption of margarine has a correlation of over 99% (for more spurious correlations, see: this website).
It is important to understand that these processes are happening at a neurological level. Without going into too much detail, long-term potentiation, or LTP, explains how the synapses between neurons in the brain becomes stronger the more activity there is between two neurons. Persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent activity can produce long-lasting increases in signal transmission between neurons. In layman’s terms, “cells that fire together, wire together”, meaning that the more time you spend thinking a certain thought, the easier it will be for your brain to think that thought again. LTP is one of the neurological mechanisms underlying learning and memory.
Three strategies to reduce cognitive bias
So far, we have established that everyone has biases, and that these biases are most common in the implicit cognitive process, and that the more time you spend in the implicit process, thinking biased thoughts, the stronger they will become. To conclude this article, we want to propose three strategies to reduce cognitive bias when you are working with recruitment. They might sound simple enough, but it takes time and effort to rewire your brain.
- Question your own feelings. Whenever you make a decision in a recruitment process, stop for a minute and ask yourself why you made that decision, you might find that it was partly based on a “gut-feeling”. Backtrack your train of thought and try to get to the bottom of what made you feel a certain way.
- Train your brain to override the implicit process that leads to biased thinking. This is easier said than done. It is when you start to feel comfortable with a task that you need to challenge yourself, swap over to explicit process mode and try to find new ways of thinking and doing things.
- Get a second opinion. Having someone to discuss your decisions with is a great way to challenge your own biases, preferably someone that disagrees with you, this forces you to really formulate your reasoning.