The reptile brain and biases
Everyone has two brains. There is the brain as you likely know it, the squishy, pink, 8 lb meatloaf floating inside that lovely cranium of yours. It’s rational, analytical, logical - it makes sense. It is the gray-suited accountant inside your head.
However, we also have a second brain: the “reptile brain”. It’s not localized to any one It comes in many different names. Some might call it the little voice in the back of their heads; others, their “gut”. The Heath brothers call it the Elephant, a big, lumbering but incredibly powerful force. And at some time or another, we have let it make our decisions.
Typically this isn’t a bad thing. The reptile brain has an incredible ability to quickly process, pattern match, and respond to new information. It allows us to draw upon our experiences, even some we can’t actively remember, to quickly understand “What’s happening here?” and “How did I react to this last time?”.
However, the reptile brain is susceptible to biases. What are biases?
Cognitive Biases—systematic tendencies to deviate from rational calculations
In other words, biases are what happens when the reptile brain throws the gray-suited accountant out the window.
You are not exempt
The start up world is like the jungle when it comes to biases. Reptile brains run free everywhere. We see confirmation biases, where people tend to only cite evidence in their favor (See: VC investment theses). We see success bias, where we automatically assume a causal relationship between a successful company’s traits and its good fortune (See: Moving into the Twitter building). There are anchoring biases, where we latch onto the first number we hear as the “right one” and judge all newcomers by it (See: $1 app). Biases grow wild in start-up world, unchecked and out of control.
In other words, if you don’t think you’re being affected by any bias, you probably are.
None of this is news: many people have commented on the prevalence of biases. We recognize that it’s a problem. However, mere recognition isn’t enough - knowing that a bias exists is helpful, but by their very nature biases will blind you to their presence. In other words, if you don’t think you’re being affected by any bias, you probably are.
Overcoming biases is about containing them, not eliminating them
It is futile to attempt to totally remove biases from our thinking; the reptile brain is far too powerful to simply ignore. What we can do is contain and check it with a strong process.
Process is the opposite of the reptile brain. Process introduces rational, drawn out considerations. Process makes us think about all relevant factors, not just the ones that look good. Process is checklists, step-by-steps, and mandatory reviews which force us to challenge the “gut answer”. Process takes the raw ore from the reptile brain and refines, polishes, and cleans it up into a precious nugget of progress.
If you’re in a start up, there’s another term which might come to mind: corporate. Almost a dirty word in small companies, many people leave their corporate jobs precisely because of too much process. When they strike off on their own they make a pledge: never again. No more process.
Do you see what happened there, though? It’s a bias in action. I had a bad experience with process before, so let’s not do that anymore.
Process is not about constraining though, about crushing dissent, or about forcing homogenization. In fact, the best small businesses are those which judiciously mix chaotic exploration with disciplined process. When the Stanford d.school teaches companies how to brainstorm, it doesn’t talk about how to become more creative - it talks about how to become more disciplined with your process.
Furthermore, not every decision needs process. For example, deciding which of 41 shades of blue to make a button is likely not a decision that would require a strong check on biases. A judicious approach to process, much like anything else, is necessary.
But does it work? Yes.
McKinsey did a study on decision making and biases to see how much of an affect recognizing and fixing biases had in real companies. The result? It matters. A lot.
The quality of your decision making processes is 6x more influential on your company’s performance than the quality of analysis used to make that decision.
With all the work that we put into containing, recording, and analyzing data, isn’t it about time we put some work into controlling our own biases?
If you’re interested in learning about specific strategies to combat biases, the McKinsey article also has a list of common biases and their (admittedly large company) focused strategies for mitigating them. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in confronting and containing their own biases.