Testing assumptions related to biases

There are more than 180 cognitive biases messing with how we process data

The brain naturally looks for shortcuts as a survival mechanism. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.com
The brain naturally looks for shortcuts as a survival mechanism.

When have you questioned your reasoning for something because the decision no longer aligned with a shifting belief or values? I am hopeful you have tested an assumption, objectively, within the past week, if not daily! The justification “because this is how it has always been done” is an indicator it is time to test the statement’s foundation.

Recently, I engaged in interesting conversations around the idea of biases and testing assumptions. Ken Yagi, MS, RVT, VTS (ECC, SAIM), and I are creating a program to be delivered during the American Animal Hospital Association Conference called, “Elevating Veterinary Technicians through Better Utilization”  focusing on inherent biases we place on veterinary professionals.

Pam Mitchell, DVM, and I explored the idea of testing assumptions to broaden our understanding in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). I also participated in Marie Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC, CYT’s webinar titled, “Uncovering Unconscious Biases,” which was fascinating!

That is quite a few philosophical conversations peppered in a short period of time.

All in all, individuals are wired for biases, to cut to the chase as a form of self-preservation and quick response, but these knee-jerk responses may not always lead to the best outcome for our personal and professional lives. You may find diving deeper into unconscious, cognitive biases as interesting as I do to improve a team’s engagement and personal self-awareness.

Hang on to your hat—this may be a bumpy ride! Testing assumptions can be a tricky endeavor if done correctly. Consider placing “cognitive biases” on an upcoming team meeting. Like past Veterinary Team Insights columns, use the publication to invite and encourage an open, thought-provoking conversation.

What are biases?

A bias is defined as a preference in favor of or against a thing, person, or group compared with another; it may be held by an individual, a group, or an institution; it can have negative or positive consequences.

“Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) is a prejudice or judgment that is present but not consciously recognized. Every person has unconscious biases we attribute to another person or group of people, which thereby impact our instinctual decisions and reactions—and it happens without us realizing it!” said Dr. Holowaychuk during her podcast dedicated to well-being during a Wellness Wednesday session, recorded in June of this year.1

Contrary to popular belief, biases are not always centered around gender and/or race. Further, it is not about simply disliking certain groups.

Really? 180 biases?

In total, there are more than 180 cognitive biases messing with how we process data, think critically, and perceive reality.2

While I will not cover all 180 biases, there are a few concepts veterinary team members may believe, which, in turn, impacts their delivery of patient care, interactions with clients, and relationships with fellow teammates.

The following are a few examples I believe apply:

Groupthink = Let the social dynamics of a group situation override the best outcomes. After all, it is uncomfortable and can harm your social standing if you challenge the first and strongest voice. Rather than openly contradict others, attempt to facilitate an objective way to evaluate decisions.

Time = Why do we do something a certain way? Because that is how it has always been done. Perceived bias we do not have the time to remake or rework keeps us in a limiting zone because we don’t take the time to reinvent ourselves. Placing time restraints on a concept halts innovation.

Spotlight effect = Overestimate how much people notice how you look and act. After all, in the general world, most people are more concerned about themselves than they are about you.

Negativity = Psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories. Consider how veterinary team members will dwell on an unpleasant experience with a client and not embrace the 10 good, appreciative experiences.

Inherent = Existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute to include a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered unfair. Through our program, Ken Yagi and I are going to elaborate on this bias, specifically as it relates to veterinary technicians in the distribution of continuing education, as well as intrapreneurs and wages.

Gender = A widely held set of implicit (unconscious) biases, discriminating against a gender. This is manifested within the veterinary community in the wage gap between men and women. (Read more about this in the “lifetime of low-balling” section of my past article titled, “Negotiate for yourself as no one else will.”3)

Confirmation = The tendency to overvalue data and observation to fit with our existing beliefs.

“The [confirmation] pattern is to form a theory (often based on emotion) supported with insufficient data, and then to restrict critical thinking and ongoing analysis, which is, of course, irrational. Instead, you look for data to fit your theory. While it seems obvious enough to avoid, confirmation bias is a particularly sinister cognitive bias, affecting not just intellectual debates, but relationships, personal finances, and even your physical and mental health. Racism and sexism, for example, can both be deepened by confirmation bias. If you have an opinion on gender roles, it can be tempting to look for ‘data’ from your daily life to reinforce your opinion on those roles,” Terry Heick explains in his dynamic publication, The Cognitive Bias Codex, A Visual of 180+ Cognitive Biases.2

Wrapping your head around unconscious biases may be difficult, and I have only mentioned a few. It is not easy to dissect the many concepts we have assumed to be right in our life. Testing assumptions (biases) can be hugely beneficial when the plan is to improve team engagement and self-awareness.

Gordon Moskowitz, who is the author of three books on cognitive psychology, as well as professor and chair of the psychology department at Lehigh University, writes, “People are willful, and they are biased. But they are biased simply in the sense that they are making sense of a complex world through the lens of their values and the goals they choose to pursue.” His article is titled, “Are We All Inherently Bias?”—and his research suggests yes, we are inherently bias.

Now that we have a fresher view of biases, do you agree or disagree with the statement, “Individuals have a personal agenda”? It is a valid question. Again, you are encouraged to step into a conversation with your team in testing their assumptions. This question about personal agendas may be the perfect icebreaker, or not.

You have biases (there is no way around it). Accept this as a normal function of your brain, but do not allow it (your bias) to make your final decisions. Test assumptions!

Rebecca Rose, CVT, certified career coach, founder, and president at CATALYST Veterinary Professional Coaches, has a diverse background in the veterinary community. She has worked in and managed clinics, collaborates with industry partners, and facilitates engaging team workshops. Her most current role includes outreach specialist for Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice. Rose’s enthusiasm for professional development in veterinary medicine is contagious, as she encourages and supports veterinary teams in reaching their highest potential. She can be reached via Rebecca@LapofLove.com.

References

  1. Holowaychuk, M Uncovering Unconscious Bias, podcast, June 2021, https://marieholowaychuk.com/podcast/uncovering-unconscious-bias-reviving-vet-med-episode-2/
  2. Heick, T “The cognitive bias codex: A visual of 180+ cognitive biases,” TeachThought, https://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/the-cognitive-bias-codex-a-visual-of-180-cognitive-biases/
  3. Rose, R “Negotiate for yourself as no one else will,” Veterinary Practice News, July 2021

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