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Life Isn't Fair - Are You?

"But that's not fair!" Parents hear that from their kids all the time and often respond, "Well, honey, sometimes life's not fair." Even though we know that life is not always fair, we still strive to make decisions that are well-reasoned and equitable for all. We value fairness.

Unfortunately, the lizard brain has a different agenda than we do and has a strong influence over our decision making. As the most primitive part of our mental machinery, its only job is to keep us alive. And it couldn’t care less about fairness.

Thinking Fast

One way the lizard keeps us alive is by helping us move quickly through uncertainty. It offers us shortcuts which are usually helpful - but not always. But it also introduces biases that move us in one direction and away from another. For example, we have a bias toward people and situations that are familiar to us because the lizard brain views unfamiliar situations and people as potentially threatening.

Unfortunately, sticking to the familiar can throttle growth and keep us from exploring better and fairer but less familiar options.

Even when we think our actions are unbiased, the lizard brain carries millions of years of unconscious cognitive biases that can subvert our decision making and make us behave in ways that are counter to our own values. Especially when we value fairness.

Welcome Aboard

Let's take a look at hiring practices. Researchers have found that recruiters and hiring managers have a preference for applicants who are similar to them, due to the similarity attraction effect. If the manager enjoys skiing and the applicant lists skiing as a hobby, the scale will tip his way. This attraction can be based on attributes such as age, hometown, or college attended, even though they are completely irrelevant to the position being filled.

It can also be based on social or identity in-groups. Whether it is gender, race, nationality, or social class, people who are more like us tend to get preferential treatment.

Studies have also shown that physical attributes contribute to hiring decisions as well, including attractiveness and weight. This is the affect heuristic at work. These biases are particularly diabolical because we are usually unaware that we are being influenced at all.


What can businesses do? While we generally can't remove subconscious biases, we can create an environment that reduces their influence.

One method gaining popularity is “blind hiring.” Have all resumes entered into a standard format before they are seen by the hiring manager. The only information on the standard form are those data that are pertinent to the candidate’s experience and suitability for the position. By removing gender, age, college, birthplace, current address, even name (a name can create a perception of ethnicity) – subconscious biases have less to grab onto.

The Weight of the Interview

Another tendency in hiring is to over-value the personal interview. Studies have shown that the interview is a much poorer indicator of future job performance than other factors such as experience and education. In fact, the interview only correlates to actual future performance at a rate of 10-20%, but it usually gets weighted much higher by hiring managers,

This is an issue not only because of the low correlation to performance, but also because the interview is an easy place for identity bias to creep in. In face-to-face interaction, physical features and cues become more prominent and can more easily trigger bias.

While the personal interview is important in hiring, organizations would do well to set a pre-determined weight that the personal interview will have on the overall applicant rating, reducing the potential to over-inflate its influence.

We all have hidden biases and subconscious influences and we don't need to beat ourselves up over them. But by taking steps to remove the lizard brain’s influence we can improve our decision making to be not only more effective, but more fair as well.

Think well and be well.

- Steve.


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