3 Mechanisms That Bias Our Decision-Making: REVIEW

Why do we make the decisions that we do? How do we rationalize these decisions?

Research is constantly evaluating how and why business managers make the choices we make, which we’ve outlined over the last few weeks.

To sum up, the three main biases discussed:

  • Availability bias – involves making a decision not based on an outcome’s true frequency/probability, but rather on how frequent an event enters the forefront of one’s mind.
  • Representativeness bias – involves judging the likelihood of an event based on how closely it relates to another event – i.e., on a mental model that does not exist in reality.
  • Anchoring bias – involves reaching a decision from an initial set point, often grounded in your culturally-influenced values and norms.

However, these are only a few ways in which culture creeps in to bias our decision-making.

Even our confidence in our decision-making ability is often influenced by culture.

Confidence in the Veracity of Decision-Making Ability

Research shows that, compared to their U.S. counterparts, Mexican managers are exceedingly confident in the veracity of their decision-making.

In a study by Christine Uber Grosse, entitled, “Global Managers’ Perceptions of Cultural Competence,” one Mexican manager explained the differences between leaders in Mexico and America, saying:

“We in Mexico are more colloquial or informal and are not so inclined to statistics. The Americans are very ‘manual-oriented’ and organized and we are more relaxed and ingenious.”

So, while before committing to a decision, U.S. managers expect to hear a complete plan laid out, including costs, a schedule, and the target results, Mexican managers rely more heavily on their gut instinct.

Moreover, when Mexican managers commit and something fails, they are more likely to double-down on that commitment, throwing good money after bad (as U.S. managers might put it).

According to research conducted by J. Frank Yates and Stephanie de Oliveira (“Culture and Decision-making“):

“A high degree of overconfidence has been found among Mexicans relative to Americans (Lechuga & Wiebe, 2011)…Overconfidence was widespread but differed in degree according to region.”

This overconfidence was attributed by the authors not so much to a manager’s judgment in confidence, but rather to differences in ability, as the latter varied substantially across countries.

Simplified Mental Models

Tying this all together with cross-cultural business, knowledge of the biases that influence decision-making – and another’s confidence in their decision-making – will help you navigate another culture’s rationale while also redirecting yours accordingly.

With various worldviews and cultural backgrounds, subjective realities exist, resulting in different mental decision models.

But one thing is universal: managers use their simplified and biased mental models to make their decisions.

Although likely different than your own, their simplified mental model is not irrational; it is based upon their subjective cultural perception and reality, just as yours is.

Oftentimes, no matter how illogical a decision may seem to you, the other is acting rationally within their own cultural framework, their baobab.

So, before concluding that a foreign manager’s decision makes no logical sense, familiarize yourself with the culture, its perception, and its reality.

You may then understand how a manager’s availability, representativeness, and anchoring biases – or any other culturally-influenced bias – enter into their decision-making.

3 Mechanisms That Bias Our Decision-Making: Availability Bias

Managers apply simple models to help make decisions. Personal experience and culture help form these models.

Our cultural environment largely influences the rationale of our decision-making processes.

Daily decisions don’t require extensive analysis; rather, progress is made more efficient using prior experience and rule of thumb.

But it’s important to note that when we lean heavily into “rule of thumb” and prior experience, we unconsciously rely on bias.

As identified by research, three mechanisms affect this decision-making bias:

  • Availability
  • Representativeness
  • Anchoring

We’ll outline each across the next few blog posts, starting today with availability.

First, a question…

Which of the following do you think kills more people worldwide each year?

  1. Vehicular accidents
  2. Lung cancer
  3. Cape buffalo

If you answered “a) Vehicular accidents,” you’re a product of availability bias.

Availability bias involves making a judgment based upon the frequency of an event in the forefront of one’s mind rather than the event’s real-life probability.

Emotional or easily imaginable events – like vehicular accidents – are recalled more readily than a vague, obscure, or uninteresting incident.

This makes such events seem more prevalent and probable than they actually are.

And the answer…

An experiment was done in the U.S. with just such a question, where participants were asked whether more worldwide deaths were caused by lung cancer or car accidents annually.

Most answered that car accidents resulted in a higher fatality rate. The reality is that lung cancer kills nearly twice as many each year.

On average, over 2 million die each year from lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization, while the CDC states that around 1.35 million are killed on roadways across the globe annually.

The reason there is such a lopsided perception on each event’s probability is partially related to media culture, in which vehicular deaths are much more widely covered than those caused by lung cancer.

Humans really do have a selective memory: we remember more frequently and distinctly situations with a vivid narrative.

This skews the perception of each event’s frequency.

Other aspects that contribute to an individual’s availability bias include personal experience. If the individual knew of someone or multiple people, for instance, who had died from either lung cancer or a vehicular accident, this information might also bias their judgment.

Now, consider if you asked the same question of a Kenyan participant. In Africa, 200 people die each year from Cape buffalo, and such fatal incidents are likely heavily covered by the media.

Overall, a Kenyan participant might have a higher estimate than their U.S. counterpart regarding the global fatality rate caused by Cape buffalo.

In this way, cultural differences impact our availability bias and, in turn, our perception and judgment when it comes to decision-making.

On deck next week: representativeness.

4 Managerial Styles to Cope with Stressful Decision-Making

You are facing a global pandemic. You must decide the best approach to keeping your business afloat.

How do you protect your bottom line? Do you lay off workers? Can you do mental gymnastics and reassess your business model, making the current economy’s limitations work for you?

The way you cope with the stress of complex business decisions reflects both your personality and your culture.

Four different managerial styles have been identified through research.

We’ll call these styles:

  • The architect
  • The free spirit
  • The expert-seeker
  • The panic attack

You may recognize one – or all – of these strategies in yourself and your management methodology.

Let’s take a look at each.

The Architect

This form, which is most taught in schools of management, considers alternative solutions to complex business decisions through the attentive collection of facts.

This methodology and its application is one in which Western managers pride themselves.

An architect is a planner, accounting for the whole picture and all potential outcomes.

The Free Spirit

Complacency and spontaneity are the main tools in the free-spirit’s managerial toolbox.

No complicated decision-making process is employed; the free-spirit takes the first available practical course of action that presents itself.

In doing so, she may be blind to alternatives with better outcomes.

The Expert-Seeker

Instead of relying on his own managerial expertise, the expert-seeker passes the buck to those more knowledgeable or qualified on the subject.

The expert-seeker might consult a specialist or supervisor in all aspects of an issue in order to direct his decision-making.

The Panic Attack

The last managerial decision-making style is one you should avoid.

This tactic involves succumbing to panic mode and making reckless, ill-advised decisions largely based on hysteria.

Obviously, this decision-making methodology is not recommended.

Personality and Culture Impacts Decision-Making Methodology

Your decision-making process is largely impacted by both your personality and culture.

Although you’ll find all four strategies in every culture, some styles may be more predominant than others.

For instance, you’ll find The Architect methodology is applied more often in Western cultures (e.g. the U.S. and Australia) than in, say, Japan or other East-Asian countries.

That does not mean the chosen strategy is any less rational or effective (unless we’re talking The Panic Attack).

The difference in methodology is based on a different set of cultural norms and values so, rather, a style that is ineffective in one culture may be more effective in another.

As we discussed in past posts, people act rationally within their own culture.

One example:

Intuition and emotion often direct Japanese managerial decision-making.

Due to the collectivist values of the culture, a primary concern will be how the decision might be received by the group and how it might affect the social fabric.

Collectivist societies take stock in the collective view; the welfare of the entire group, rather than simply the individual, is most important.

We’ll talk more next week about other biases in the managerial decision-making process.

“The World is Flat”: How Beliefs Direct Rationale

Say, you grew up in an remote civilization far away from modern industry and technology. Far away from people and foreign thought.

Say, you were born in the middle of the African savannah. The land is flat. Very little in the way of mountains or hills.

You wake up in the morning to the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. It appears on one side of your village and disappears on the other.

Due to your observations, you assume the world is flat and a void exists at lands’ end. Not an illogical or irrational assumption, all things considered. There is no outside influence to suggest otherwise.

Your hypothesis is not unfounded, and it turns into a belief.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

This plays into the plot of the 1980 South African comedy, The Gods Must Be Crazy. 

In the film, a pilot flying over the plains of South Africa tosses an empty Coke bottle out the window.

When a bushman happens upon the shiny object, he believes the gods sent it to him. After all, it did fall right out of the sky.

Oblivious to modern civilization, the bushman’s tribe experiments with the Coke bottle, using it for a variety of daily tasks – in lieu of a grinding stone, for instance.

The traditional community sees the shiny discarded Coke bottle as a prized trophy, being that there’s only one on Earth (or so they think).

Due to the strife caused by the villagers fighting over this bottle, the tribal elders believe it best to return this gift to the gods in order to maintain peace.

A bushman is tasked with walking to the end of the Earth to toss the Coke bottle into the void.

Those of us who live in the modern world – who know that the world is round and Coke bottles are everywhere – likely find this whole idea laughable.

If someone from a Western culture carried a Coke bottle across an entire continent on foot in order to dispose of it over the edge, we’d consider him crazy, irrational, unreasonable.

But to say the same about these bushmen, we’d be wrong.

Walk in the Steps of the Bushmen

Take yourself out of your own cultural baobab for a moment and place yourself in that of these bushmen.

Were they unreasonable in their thinking or did their actions align with their beliefs?

Their actions were rational and justified within their ideology.

Bottles like this don’t exist in their world. A flat world must have edges, so thinking you can discard a bottle off the edge makes perfect sense.

The point is: a person acts logically within his cultural rationale if his actions/behavior is in accordance with his beliefs.

We’ll follow this logic next week.

Seeking the “Why”: How Curiosity Can Assist Cross-Cultural Integration

When working across cultures, stress develops from inconsistencies in values, behaviors, and norms.

Anxiety accompanies culture shock and the changes in behavior required.

Do you handle stress and anxiety well? Then the transition of adapting to your new culture will happen faster and smoother than otherwise.

If you don’t, the next couple posts will show you how to ease the process.

Why Asking “Why?” is Important

A lack of understanding leads to a lack of acceptance.

Without understanding and acceptance, adapting to things you find random or illogical is next to impossible.

That’s why learning the “why” of behavior clears the way for adaption.

Consider you’re the monkey in the zoo. People are chucking peanuts at you, and you have no idea why.

Your handler feeds you often enough, and you’re not hungry. And yet, these humans are surrounding your home and lobbing peanuts at your feet.

“Seems irrational,” you think. “I have all the food I need. Why are these humans throwing more?”

Then again, you might try to see it from the human perspective by asking, “Why?”

Taking a seat to observe the humans, you – the monkey – try to work out the reasoning behind their behavior.

“Hmmm…” you think, “maybe they aren’t throwing peanuts to feed me; maybe they’re throwing them to observe me. I must be boring them by sleeping. They’re trying to encourage me to engage with them.”

As the monkey, through curiosity, you start to understand the rationale of the human; you understand that not all that is unfamiliar is irrational.

Survival Requires Rational Action

Humans are conditioned to act rationally within their environment and time period in order to survive.

Physicist D. Hillis writes in Cause and Effect:

“We like to organize events into chains of cause and effects that explain the consequences of our actions. […] This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The ultimate job of our nervous system is to make actionable decisions, and predicting the consequences of those decisions is important to our survival.”

Since the dawn of time, human beings have been rationalizing.

Society, etiquette, war.

All of these things developed out of some form of rationale or logic.

They were learned.

The question we’ll be asking is how does cultural rationale develop?

And answering that question – and those that follow – starts with curiosity and observation. We’ll talk about that more next week.