How 'Unconscious Bias' Can Trick Your Brain Into Trusting People (Even if You Shouldn't)
By Emily Petsko
There might be some truth to the old “fake it 'til you make it” adage after all. Research shows that “proxies of expertise”—the traits we typically associate with experience, like confidence—can trick our brains into believing someone knows their stuff, even if they don’t.
This is a form of unconscious bias, and although these “mental leaps” help our brains sift through a great deal of information and make decisions more quickly, they can also lead to impaired judgment, as The New York Times points out.
According to a study by researchers at the University of Utah, oftentimes when we’re trying to decide whose judgment to trust, how people talk or present themselves has greater sway over our opinion than their actual knowledge or qualifications. Traits like confidence and extroversion can easily be mistaken for expertise.
“We’d hope that facts would be the currency of influence," Bryan L. Bonner, the lead author of the study, told The Wall Street Journal. "But often, we guess at who’s the expert—and we’re wrong.”
Another study found that a person’s actual influence is often overlooked for “airtime”—the amount of time they spend speaking, as Strategy+Business reports. In a similar vein, the status-enhancement theory posits that influence can be gained by acting dominant and confident.
Unconscious biases can lead to snap decisions based on cultural context and personal experiences, even though we're oblivious to the rationale behind them. For example, a school hiring an English teacher might scrap someone’s application because their name sounds foreign, even if they don't realize they're doing so.
There are many different forms of unconscious bias, and while some kinds can lead to harsh judgment even when it’s unwarranted, other forms can have the opposite effect. One such form, called the Halo Effect, is when we let someone’s positive attributes cloud our judgment to such a degree that we overlook their flaws. Say, for example, you admire someone who just won a prestigious award, but you overlook poor decisions they made in other areas of their life. The opposite of this is the Horns Effect—when we only see their faults.
Although these unconscious biases are difficult to overcome, being aware of them helps prevent them from having undue influence over your decision-making.
[h/t The New York Times]