Bias number eight is known as the attribute substitution bias. This bias underlies many cognitive biases and perceptual illusions that affect the human decision-making process.
When confronted with a question that is computationally complex, human beings will choose a heuristic decision-making approach, or a rapid judgement based on intuition over the more challenging, self-aware reflective approach. This means that, in attempting to answer the question, they will often provide answers to a related but different question without realising they have made the substitution.
The human tendency to provide a quick answer rather than an accurate answer, governed by the attribute substitution bias, demonstrates the susceptibility of human thought processes towards bias, despite bias awareness.
Studies have shown the attributional bias to be present in a number of instances, including optical illusions, stereotypes and morality judgements, where people make quick judgements based on bias rather than the facts of a situation.
As you read the description of the attribute substitution bias, what springs to your mind? What springs to my mind? The realisation of just how unreliable human thought really is.
Let’s take the case of mental health. It is an issue that is increasingly discussed in business circles. As someone who has recommended open dialogue around mental health in the workplace for a number of years, I am happy that the discussion is taking place.
At the same time, I am concerned that people are making assumptions about colleagues’ mental health. This is especially prevalent amongst the mental health champion community.
How so? If you follow any aspiring influencers in the mental health sphere on social media accounts like LinkedIn, you will see a veritable plethora of articles and posts that suggest the mental health of the nation is suffering as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
What I see is a lot of wishful-thinking marketing messages designed to drum up business for mental health advocates. What I don’t see is a lot of proof that the mental health of the nation is suffering as a result of lockdown.
In my own experience, people are positively benefitting from the time away from the office. They are reconnecting with family. They are catching up on sleep. They are taking up new hobbies that promote wellbeing like yoga, cycling and cooking. They are reading books that have been on their shelves for ages (I managed to finish East of Eden — finally!)
It could be argued that I am one of the lucky ones. I know that others have not been so lucky, so I am under no illusion that the experience of my circle of contacts represents the sum total of the nation’s experience.
At the same time, I am a little perturbed by people’s tendency to make assumptions about the state of people’s health without bothering to find out the truth of the situation.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’?” I see a lot of that occurring amongst mental health champions. It’s time to start recognising and being responsible for biases around the subject of mental health. Mental health champions are as, if not more prone to bias than non-champions.
The reality is that your neurology takes all sorts of short cuts to arrive at conclusions. The reason is that your neurological system is hardwired for survival. In life or death situations, very often you haven’t got the luxury of time, so you need to act quickly.
If your own business has struggled during the lockdown, a good way of generating income is to hype up a problem that may or may not exist. Consider that you see what you want to see, not what's actually so. This is the impact a bias such as the attribute substitution bias can have on your attitude towards something, in this case mental health during lockdown.
Problem is, you’re not dealing with an innocuous subject here. Making judgements based on intuition rather than fact will get you into hot water. Assuming that your colleagues’ silence is a sign of mental illness is not only inappropriate, it’s potentially harmful.
Have you considered that the opposite may be true? What if your colleagues’ mental health has improved dramatically as a result of nearly six months away from the office?
There’s an easy way to solve this problem. It requires commitment to discovering the truth rather than intuiting a judgement call, and it can be accomplished in six easy steps.
Step One: Recognise that your intuition is based on assumptions and not accurate information.
Step Two: Ask yourself what information you need to gather to make an accurate assessment of the situation.
Step Three: Find out that information by asking your colleagues, “What has the experience of lockdown been like for you?”
Step Four: Trust and accept the responses.
Step Five: Ask colleagues how you can support them where appropriate.
Step Six: Honour their requests.
When it comes to mental health, it’s easy to make uneducated guesses and take actions that affect people without having the full picture of reality. Given there are so many free survey tools available, the easiest way to get to the truth is to conduct an in-house survey to find out how your colleagues are actually fairing.
You've got an opportunity to choose. Will you base business decisions on truth, or will you base business decisions on quick, inaccurate mental substitutes?
I always recommend doing the hard work upfront to gather accurate data and take action based on what you discover, not what you assume. This is when you'll make decisions that truly make a difference. Genuine empowerment arises when you learn to step away from assumption and imposition and step into active engagement, data-driven decision making and collaborative, service-led solutions.
Commit to bringing brilliance to your organisational mental health support by working from real data, not cheap substitutes based on intuition. Deliver real benefit to your colleagues. Your mental health strategy will shine when you do.