Bias number two is known as the agent detection bias. This bias belongs to a group of biases that affect decision-making, beliefs and behaviours in human beings.
The agent detection bias is believed to have formed as a survival strategy. In situations of uncertainty, human beings create the idea of an intelligent agent, like an enemy or a predator, to rationalise and encourage cautious behaviour.
Here’s how it works in practice. Imagine you are taking a stroll in the wilderness. You stop to admire the view. Your reverie is rudely interrupted by the sound of a twig snapping.
What do you do, and more importantly, what do you think?
You probably stop the flow of the moment drinking in your surroundings. You become alert and look around for the “agent” that snapped the twig. Maybe you decide to move out of the trees and into a nearby clearing. Maybe you take your umbrella in hand as a makeshift weapon, ready to strike down any would-be assailant.
You are keeping yourself safe, just in case the “agent” happens to be a hungry lion or an abduction-prone foreign visitor.
It makes perfect sense to take action to protect your life. This is the function of your in-built safety mechanism called the fight-flight-freeze response. If you didn’t have this, humanity would never have made it beyond the caves of our early existence.
This bias can have a powerful effect upon our business decisions. Sometimes it saves us from catastrophic consequences of poor or unprepared decision-making.
Take, for example, SWOT analyses. The T stands for threats. When evaluating the potential success or failure of a business project, it makes good business sense to at least have some idea of the potential threats to the project’s fulfilment.
A contingency plan is another example of the agent detection bias leaping into action.
How many companies had contingency plans in the event of the spread of an “agent” like the SARS Covid-19 virus at the beginning of lockdown? How many companies NOW have created contingency plans in anticipation of a future pandemic?
The smart ones will have contingency plans in place for all sorts of threats, be they floods, product or service failings, employee misconduct, market crashes AND pandemics. Spending time detecting and understanding potential agents of destruction better equips you to face these agents head-on when the time arises.
This bias can, however, negatively impact your business in two key ways.
On one hand, failure to consider the impact of agents on your business means that you get caught off-guard. A cavalier attitude can produce catastrophic consequences that could have been mitigated had you taken the time to consider your response to various agents of chaos.
On the other hand, focusing too heavily on the potential impact of external agents can generate a constant state of fear and anxiety and leave you feeling at the mercy of your surroundings. It's then easy to absolve yourself of any responsibility for your situation.
Did you catch it? There's the victim of circumstance chestnut rearing its head again.
Here's how it works. For several years, I felt that my business opportunities had dried up as a result of Brexit. I rationalised it by believing that uncertainty causes companies to divert budgets away from non-essential areas like learning and development.
To be fair, there is some truth in that. At the same time, I admit that at times I let it stop me from actively marketing my services. In moments of rejection, I shook my fists in frustration at the fictional Brexit demon.
In moments of empowerment, I explored alternative ways of delivering coaching to cash-strapped, time-poor business people, and I used the time to write my first book, slated for publication in autumn 2020.
It felt as though businesses were starting to heave a sigh of relief and move forward when COVID-19 hit. Now Brexit seems like a godsend in comparison to lockdown, doesn’t it?
Could we have truly planned for either the Brexit or COVID agents? While you might not have believed Brexit could become a reality, you knew the referendum was approaching and the possibility of a referendum was discussed years before it came to fruition. The smart businesses started developing their EU exit strategy before the vote.
If you know how to read between lines, you may have spotted the impending viral agent that has created such a stir. Certain human agents have been discussing the likelihood openly for several years. Some companies were prepared with structures to respond to a pandemic and resulting lockdown.
Were you one of those businesses? If not, don’t beat yourself up. Most didn't see it coming.
Instead of using this as an opportunity to flog yourself, I recommend you use it as an opportunity to wisen up. You're not alone in being caught off the back foot.
So, how can you master this agent detection bias with power? There are three ways you can approach this, each with varying degrees of success.
You could spend all your time planning for the next big crisis — alien invasion, World War III or the return of the bubonic plague, for example. Beware the anxiety-fuelled Chicken Little atmosphere this strategy will provoke in you and your colleagues.
You could ignore it completely and take action if and when any of it happens. It is an exercise in living in the moment, for sure, but it does not give you the best chance of weathering a storm when it hits.
Or you could follow the path of wisdom, having one eye planning workarounds for potential agent-created roadblocks, and the other eye following the open road, free from all constraint. Do so with the knowledge that the real journey will almost certainly lie somewhere between the two.
Finally, enjoy the challenge. Nothing worth having was ever easy to come by. Discover another layer to your brilliance by meeting these challenges like an alchemist, with the intention of uncovering the path to golden riches of character.
Which path will you choose?