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Food for Thought: Challenges and Ideas for Addressing Bias

If given the right tools, bias can be overcome.

By Katja Cahoon

In a previous article, I outline a topic that is not talked about (a lot). Bias impacts all of us, even, and sometimes especially, experts, as Kahneman and others outline in detail in their writing. I promised ideas for how to address it. Daniel Kahneman himself states that it is very hard, if not impossible, to change bias and cognitive errors[1] and I am humble enough not to think that I can outdo the Master! Research has even shown that certain kinds of bias training do not lead to noticeable change and can have the opposite effect.

On the other hand, I believe in our innate ability to change if given the right tools. Innovation guru Stephen Shapiro states: “Branch out and start studying tangents. I learn about innovation by studying magic.” I am not going to draw on magic but on my training and experience as a psychotherapist as well as having worked with dozens of wonderful, smart, inspiring insights and brand teams all over the world. As a psychotherapist, I am acutely aware of the amazing human ability to change unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors, in some cases quite fundamentally and profoundly.

Specifically, I am going to use the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bear with me, please! They are actually very applicable as they deal with recognizing maladaptive patterns of thought and behavior, working to change those, and finally integrating new ways of thinking into one’s daily routine. The 12 Steps break down neatly into three distinct categories, which I will translate here into a business context.

Market research and marketing is of course not as dangerous or even lethal as addiction, but mistakes can certainly be costly (as in losing an election or expensive product or communication missteps). So, let’s look at the steps, how they create a structure for change, and end with some practical and inspiring ideas:

1) In AA, steps 1 to 3 are called the surrender steps. This is where a person realizes and accepts that they have a problem. We as an industry know that consumers are biased (it is pretty well established at this point). Most of us know that this applies to all human beings, marketers included. But, have we truly accepted it?

Knowing is different from accepting. The former happens at a cognitive, detached level. It is not that hard to say, “of course we are all biased.” It is even easier to point the finger at bias and we tend to forget that in those cases three fingers are pointing back at us. Acceptance happens at a deeper, more emotional level. It is unpleasant to realize that I have been biased, as I also discuss in my previous article. And more importantly, acceptance does not just theoretically call for some type of action but rather makes that action necessary. Acceptance requires more work, reflection, discussion, and practice.

  • The fundamental question is, what would it take to move you and/or your organization – meaning the people within it- from knowledge to acceptance and consequently action?
  • One starting point is to challenge yourself and encourage others to do so. Harvard’s Implicit Bias project offers a variety of well-designed tests that are pretty quick to take. They are eye-opening with regard to well-established cultural and societal biases (gender, race, ageism, etc.) – you will be surprised one way or another.
  • Another one is the BigThink article testing how rational you are – as with the IAT, these are quick, fun, and eye-opening.

Core Task: Move from knowledge to acceptance.

2) Steps 3 to 9 are called the working or action steps. These are designed to “clean house” and change patterns of behavior. If I have accepted that I am biased, I am open to a “Kaizen” approach about it: continuous learning and improvement, resulting, over time, in different associations, attitudes, and behaviors.

  • One of the action steps calls for a personal inventory. What would it look like if you took a “bias inventory?” What are the most common biases you, your team, your organization experience? Does it differ by context, e.g., is there a risk of confirmation bias skewing your views when observing a focus group or indeed any research?

It goes beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive overview of common biases and heuristics. The following are important with regard to insights and research: anchoring bias, availability heuristic, bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, stereotyping. Here is a helpful quick list of the biases I mention and a few others.

With regard to the workplace in general it is helpful to understand performance bias, competence/likeability bias, and information bias. Information bias refers to the need to seek more and more data without the information impacting action. It is particularly worthy of attention in the context of market research as it is rampant and costly. Is your company culture one in which you are more likely to run with a small amount of quality research, or problematically, biased and surface level research, or is it a company that tends to postpone and delay by getting ever more research that either goes unused or cripples action?

Core Task: Make a bias inventory and use it for learning and improvement.

3)Steps 10 to 12 are called the maintenance steps. They are designed to integrate new behavior and thought patterns in order to keep the house “clean.” This does not call for dramatic, one time action but rather continued diligence, awareness, and a practical tool kit. Small changes over time have a significant impact, a point also reiterated by the well done and publicly accessible Facebook Bias Training.

  • Attune yourself to bias before important insight or brainstorming meetings. My former co-worker, Olson Zaltman Account Director Jessica Kukreti, starts many of her client meetings with a quick exercise around common biases among research professionals. She thereby integrates bias language, thinking, and awareness into the discussion, which also gives people permission to call it out.
  • Focus groups are viewed increasingly critically, among other things for their high bias risk. Interestingly, many brainstorming meetings are sort of like focus groups. One simple trick is to write down ideas, opinions, judgements about important questions/topics before the discussion and make sure to hear all voices, especially dissenting ones.
  • Put yourself into consumers’ shoes – literally! One of my clients used to make her team use their product at home, while on the road, and in other situations. That does not sound very impressive until you realize that this involved incontinence products. Yes, the team wore diapers to create more empathy and consumer understanding!
  • And that is my last point: work on seeing consumers as holistic, diverse, complex human beings. As one participant stated during a study on Millennials we conducted a while ago: “I want companies to realize that we are people just like them. Don’t look at me and my friends as a just another profit but people with voices. People with dreams, aspirations and goals. If they can see that then we can create dialogue to better deliver the products and services we need.”

Having true empathy is a way around bias and a way around this is to understand consumer complexity and multiplicity. I will write more about this soon.

Core Task: Integrate bias busting processes into your routine.

To wrap it up, I am honored to be speaking about this and related topics at IIEX North America (June 12-14). If you are attending please come and see me: I would love to hear your thoughts, experiences, learning, and stories about this important topic. Let’s work together to tackle bias, one day at a time!

[1] Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow

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