The Brain & Hiring Decisions – What TA leaders should know about unconscious biases

| Ameya Deshmukh
Bias & Diversity, Talent Acquisition | 11 min read
The Brain & Hiring Decisions – What TA leaders should know about unconscious biases

The human brain evolved to use a system of unconscious biases to shortcut decision making. Throughout our evolutionary history, we’ve made serious decisions, life or death decisions in periods of extreme uncertainty – with incomplete data. These unconscious bias-based decision-making shortcuts were helpful in the past and likely kept us alive.

For example, a member of an early human tribe wouldn’t have time to gather data on the mental models, values, and abilities of a stranger that approached her campsite out of the woods. This early human “talent acquisition specialist” would instead have had to rely on her system of unconscious biases to determine how to respond appropriately.

In the professional environment, in modern-day, and increasingly as we move into the future our systems of unconscious biases, that are hardcoded in our brains, are not effective or appropriate decision-making tools. Instantly made binary judgments often have no rational thought behind them – although on the first examination if may feel to us that they do.

Unconscious biases interfere with our ability to hire the most effective and appropriate talent for jobs. A hiring process guided by unconscious biases can create a homogenous culture. The effectiveness of homogenous cultures is not supported in the literature. However, the relationships between diverse teams, the stronger inclusive work culture they create, and the resulting improved bottom-line performance for the company are well documented.

In this article, we’ll explain the most pervasive unconscious biases that are likely affecting your hiring today. This is not intended to serve as an attack on your diversity initiatives, but rather as a call-to-awareness. As an industry, we cannot solve for diversity without first facing the conscious and unconscious effects our own behavior is having on hiring.

The Brain & Hiring Decisions – What TA leaders should know about unconscious biases

Anchoring Biases

Anchoring biases are one type of bias that affects our judgment throughout the hiring process. Anchoring bias is a phenomenon where an irrelevant reference point influences our decision making simply because it is the first piece of information received. This reference point is called an “anchor.”

Common anchors you may use to impact your hiring decisions are the college the candidate went to, where they live, the car they drove, or if they grew up in the same town as you did. Notice that even the institution a candidate attended for college isn’t a valid indicator of value if it is used as an anchor.

For example, you could have attended a certain college, you notice a candidate attended the same college, and use it as an anchor. This single piece of information affects your judgment. Later, after analyzing performance and retention data you uncover that there isn’t a strong correlation between hiring employees who went to that college and success in the organization. Perhaps, a “strong aptitude for problem-solving” proves to be a more meaningful indicator of success in this role.

Anchors affect us every day and the resulting anchoring biases can unconsciously influence decision making both in people who have subject matter expertise and those who don’t.

Anchoring Biases in Non-Subject Matter Experts

Talent acquisition teams may not always have strong subject matter expertise in the roles they are hiring for. For example, a recruiter could be engaging with a software developer or an architect. How would the recruiter be able to evaluate the ability of that candidate through a conversation? Most likely, the recruiter would default to relying on irrelevant anchors to guide their assessment in a condition of uncertainty.

Tversky and Kahnesmanis’s research demonstrated the effect anchoring biases have on individuals without subject matter expertise in an experiment they conducted in 1974. For this study, the researchers used the classic Wheel of Fortune game to determine how an initial value affects participants’ perception of probability and how they form judgments when estimating an unrelated value.

First, participants were asked to watch a wheel that was numbered 1-100 spin. They were then asked to make an estimation to answer a question and to state whether the initial number spun was higher or lower than their estimation. Throughout the experiment, the initial number spun consistently correlated with the participant’s estimation.

For instance, in one round, the researchers had each participant watch the wheel spin and then estimate the percent of African nations in the UN. The average response for people who saw it land on 10 was 25% while the average response for people who saw it land on 65 was 45%. The initial number spun on the wheel created an anchoring bias for participants. Anchors aren’t rational but are difficult to avoid even when they are presented clearly as a spinning game show wheel.

“People make estimates by starting from an initial value that is adjusted to yield the final answer,” Tversky and Kahemanis explained. The initial value we are exposed to often serves as an anchor that forms our biases. These anchoring biases can exert significant influence on our hiring decisions.

Take, for instance, a recruiter without expertise in the career field a candidate is applying. While reviewing applications, she notices that the first candidate has a master’s degree in the field. Even though it is not a requirement for the position, the degree serves as an anchor that influences how she evaluates other candidates leading her to be negatively biased against those without the master’s degree.

Anchoring Biases for Subject Matter Experts

We often think subject matter experts are above letting biases cloud their judgment, but that’s not always true. People with subject matter expertise are just as susceptible to forming biases that affect their decision making. Englich, Mussweiler, and Strack confirmed this in a parallel study
that showed experts are just as influenced by irrelevant anchors as their less-experienced peers.

In this study, the researchers gave a group of German judges a shoplifting case to review and provide sentencing determinations. While reviewing the cases, the judges were asked to roll a pair of dice to calculate the prosecuting attorney’s sentencing recommendations. Unbeknownst to the judges, the dice they rolled were loaded to land on either 1 and 2 or 3 and 6.

Across the board, the numbers that were rolled corresponded to the judges’ sentencing recommendations. The participants that rolled higher numbers gave higher sentences of 7.81 months’ probation, on average. The judges who rolled lower numbers, on the other hand, gave lesser sentences of 5.28 months’ probation, on average.

The number on the dice created an anchor for the judges. Englich, Mussweiler, and Strack found that “despite their experience and knowledge, expert judges are influenced by randomly determined anchors.” It doesn’t matter what the anchor is, it introduces irrational behavior during times that call for extreme rationality – even in subject matter experts.

During the hiring process, subject matter experts like a hiring manager can often be unconsciously influenced. For example, picture a hiring manager who is interviewing several candidates to replace his assistant. Her previous assistant was an outstanding performer and wore a certain type of patterned tie each day. Ties become an anchor and she made binary unconscious decisions on the overall value of candidates based on the presence or absence of a tie from their outfit.

The Halo Effect

Another type of bias that often interferes with the hiring process is the halo effect. It has long been noted that people tend to view each other holistically as all good or all bad. This is called the halo effect because it seems one characteristic, good or bad, has an effect on how you perceive the entire person.

The Halo Effect was first coined in 1920 by Thorndike
in his paper The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings. Thorndike’s research found that military officers usually judged their men as good or bad right across the board. To explain why, he conducted a study having military leaders rank the characteristics of each of their soldiers: Physique, Leadership, Intelligence, and Character.

Thorndike’s study showed that taller, more attractive soldiers were rated overall as better soldiers than less attractive, shorter soldiers. Those who were ranked higher for physique correlated to higher scores across the board. To explain the strong physique correlations, Thorndike wrote, “Obviously a halo of general merit is extended to influence the rating for the special ability, or vice versa.”

This halo effect isn’t limited to military leaders. In his paper, Thorndike recognized these results were similar to his colleague, Knight’s findings on how general appearances are connected to a superior’s perception of teachers’ other characteristics. The halo effect can be found in all types of workplaces, regardless of the industry.

Beauty Bias

In the workplace, the halo effect often manifests as a beauty bias. Chamorro-Premuzie described the beauty bias and how it affects job applicants and employees in a Forbes article titled It’s Time To Expose The Attractiveness Bias At Work. “Less attractive individuals are more likely to get fired, even though they are also less likely to be hired in the first place,” Chamorro-Premuzie explained.

This beauty bias, in particular, is dangerous because it disproportionally affects females and minorities. Mahajan’s research found that females are held to higher beauty standards than their male counterparts. Something as small as not wearing make-up can affect a hiring decision. Mahajan also found that racial and religious minorities are often negatively affected by beauty bias because they are expected to conform to white norms.

Mahajan showed that “our perceptions of beauty are also shaped by the culture in which we live.” Take, for example, a hiring manager who is interviewing several candidates for a leadership position. One, in particular, is very attractive and charismatic. The hiring manager perceives the candidate to be intelligent and a good leader. Although his qualifications are not as strong as other candidates, he is selected for the position. The hiring manager’s perception of the candidate’s qualities and aptitude was entirely colored by the beauty bias and resulting halo effect.

The Primacy Effect & First Impressions

Once you’ve formed your perspective, whether it was biased or not, it’s difficult to change your mind. You could say that a first impression acts as a permanent anchor and weighs on your perspective of the person in perpetuity. Once you perceive someone a certain way, it is difficult to change your assumptions.

Solomon Asch’s research on how people form impressions of others is what we refer to today as the primacy effect. The primacy effect is what causes our first impressions to carry more weight than subsequent interactions. In Asch’s study, he had two groups of participants that he described an individual’s characteristics to. One group received positive descriptions, such as intelligent and industrious, before the negative characteristics, like envious and stubborn. The second group received negative characteristics first.

Asch’s experiment found that the group who received positive characteristics first rated the individual higher than the other group did. “It is quite hard to forget our view of a person once it has formed,” Asch wrote in his paper Forming Impressions of Personality. His work demonstrates that our perception of an individual is based on the order we receive the information, even when characteristics are identical.

The primacy effect can be frequently seen in hiring and often presents with other biases. For example, imagine a candidate who has a coffee stain on their shirt in the first round of interviews. One of the interviewers had managed an employee who was disorganized and drank a lot of coffee. This past experience created coffee as an anchor in the interviewer’s subconscious mind. This anchor contributed to a negative impression of the candidate. Next, the halo effect kicked in and colored all of the attributes and qualities the candidate displayed in a negative light. However, this interviewer was aware of the effect of unconscious biases and so moved the candidate on to a 2nd round.

During the next interview, the same candidate was very pulled together and had no stains. However, the candidate had already made a negative first impression and due to the primacy effect, the interviewer’s negative impression did not change throughout the course of the interview even as newer more relevant information was shared by the candidate. Biases rarely present alone and instead act together in complex ways to color our perspectives.

The Impact of Biases in Your Hiring Processes

As talent acquisition leaders, it’s important that you consider the impact unconscious biases could be having on your organization’s diversity efforts and whether they might be impeding your ability to access the right talent. The challenge is that these biases are unconscious, present in everyone, and hardcoded into our brains through thousands of years of evolution.

Anchoring biases, the halo effect, and first impressions can influence subject matter experts and non-subject matter experts alike. These cognitive biases lead us to make inaccurate judgments that negatively affect our decisions. To hire a competitive and diverse workforce, talent acquisition teams, hiring managers, and other stakeholders need to become aware of their own capacity for bias.

The first step to addressing bias (both conscious and unconscious) is to become more aware of it. Use the types of bias we shared in this article to examine your hiring process with a more critical eye towards the bias that may be hidden under the surface. What anchors are you using in your organization to evaluate candidates? Is this perhaps causing flawed hiring and poor decision making? Are these anchors actually strong predictors of on the job performance?

Once you’re aware of the biases that are present, the second step is to create a plan of action to address your anchors and biases. For example, if your research showed that having a college degree was not a strong indicator of job performance for a certain role, but an ability to speak Spanish was – you may want to educate your team or reevaluate your evaluation process for the role.

As you think through your hiring processes, positions, and look to bring on new technology – keep bias in mind. Even technology that creates a more human hiring experience – for example, video interviewing – can become a new area for bias to influence. Look out for our new group of articles on bias where we’ll share ways to check for bias and methods to find better predictors for hiring.

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