Being Unbiased Is Overrated

Bias. Bias. Bias. Most of us were told to avoid bias. It is costly for businesses, and it is harmful to families. But this does not get us anywhere. If we are biased, how can we avoid bias when all we have is our vigilant but biased brain?

This annoyed me for a long time until I attended a presentation by Daniel Wadhwani. His point was that instead of avoiding bias, we should embrace it. After accounting for individual biases through the use of multiple viewpoints, one can reconstruct a more accurate depiction of the past. 

This is a radical idea. In behavioral economics, we mostly focus on the consequences of bias—how bias leads people to make seemingly irrational decisions. What does it mean, then, to embrace bias? To understand this, we can turn to historians who use an approach known as triangulation.

Scholars acknowledge that biases are built into every methodology and analytical model. To rectify this, some scholars combine multiple models and methods—triangulate them—to provide a more holistic representation of reality. For this approach to be effective, the historian not only has to dive into as many sources as they can find but most importantly, they have to scrutinize the biases of these sources: Why did this person describe the event in this particular way? What were their incentives? Who were they talking to? What was their social status? These questions do not eliminate bias, but rather illuminate their role in individual interpretations. By understanding both the content and the biases in different perspectives, the historian eventually triangulates and creates another interpretation of “what actually happened.”

In our own lives, as well as in our businesses, we should embrace the fact that we are biased. It is not as important to avoid bias as it is to understand what our biases are. This way, when we interpret information, we are also cognitively aware of the biases that are skewing our view. Biases can have a good side: they allow us to pick up signals, ideas, and information that others might not notice. As long as we understand how bias limits our understanding of reality, we can use it to our advantage.

At CNTRD, we spend a lot of time understanding and embracing each other’s biases. My business partner loves systems; he often fixates on figuring out the intricate details to put things together. I, on the other hand, tend to digest and analyze large chunks of information, taking things apart to observe macrotrends. Neither is intrinsically good or bad, but we both acknowledge that our bias affects the way we view the world. We call each other out on it, but we also embrace it.

What we find most helpful is to identify your own lens—understand when it is useful and when it is not. This way, as you develop your team of biased people, you understand as an executive or a manager whose idea should carry more weight in each situation. This requires a group that is eager to be flexible and reflexive. One that acknowledges their own bias in order to triangulate as a team. So, my question to you is: What does your bias look like, and how is it helpful to you?