What’s your bias?

Imagine that a small hamlet of 600 people has been struck down by a potentially fatal disease. A health expert comes to you and offers two possible treatment programmes:

  • If you follow Programme A 200 people will be saved
  • If you follow Programme B there is a one-third probability that all 600 will be saved, but a two-thirds probability that no-one will be saved.

Which would you go for?

Now, let’s imagine that neither Programme A or B is viable. Instead, the boffin proposes another two treatment programmes:

  • If you follow Programme C 400 people will die.
  • If you follow Programme D there is a one-third probability that no-one will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

Which would you choose now?

This probably didn’t trip you up — you may have spotted that programmes A and C are exactly the same and programmes B and D are exactly the same. However, when these choices were presented separately to two groups of people, those who were given programmes A and B mostly chose A, and those who were presented with C and D mostly chose D (Entman, R. M. (1993), Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication 43(4)  51–58.)

Presenting the options in a slightly different way with different wording resulted in people making radically different decisions. This is an example of a cognitive bias — a repeatable irrationality in the way we tend to think and make choices. This particular cognitive bias is called framing (or possibly the pseudocertainty effect), but dozens of them have been identified.

Many matching theories of career choice (such as Holland) assume that we follow a rational decision making process when picking a career. They tend to ignore the fact that much of our decision making is far from rational. Part of our job as careers professionals should be to understand and highlight the irrational quirks that might lead someone to make an inappropriate career decision.

Here are a few, perhaps you will recognise some of these in the clients you see:

  • The Bandwagon Effect — the tendency to believe or do things because lots of other people are doing them
  • Confirmation Bias — the tendency to search for information that confirms the conclusion you have already come to
  • Congruence Bias — the tendency to try to prove what you believe rather than trying to test an alternative explanation
  • Focusing Effect — the tendency to pay more attention to noticeable factors and overestimate their impact
  • Mere Exposure Effect — the tendency to express more of a preference for something merely because it has been encountered before
  • Availability Heuristic — the tendency to estimate what is more likely based on what you can most easily remember

If you want more, look at the long list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia.

  • How many of them do you think have relevance to career decision making?
  • Can you spot these biases taking place in recruitment?
  • How many of them are you guilty of in your careers practice?
  • Is the way you are presenting choices to clients influencing their decision making?

Further reading

Related post: Choice cuts

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  1. #1 by Aminder K Nijjar on 30 October 2009 - 20:01

    This is why what we say and how we say it can have a long lasting effect of clients. The old half-full, half-empty glass analogy comes to mind.
    A little off point, but this reminds me of superstitions and saying people have to counter whatever negative incident has ocurred – perhaps something we can pick up in a future post – culture and careers theory…

  2. #2 by David Winter on 5 May 2010 - 20:42

  1. Haunted by the ghosts of compromise « Careers – in Theory
  2. Dialectical bootstrapping « Careers – in Theory
  3. Focalism: What are you missing? « Careers – in Theory

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