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Volume 20, Issue 4;   January 22, 2020: Disjoint Awareness: Bias

Disjoint Awareness: Bias

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Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations.
Honeybees

Honeybees. Experiments with various animals and insects suggest that they, too, exhibit cognitive biases. In one experiment, honeybees were trained to expect a desirable reward when one odor was presented, and a less desirable reward when a different odor was presented. Some of the bees were then shaken vigorously for one minute in a simulated attack on the hive, disorienting them. The experiment then showed that "…agitated bees are more likely to classify ambiguous stimuli as predicting punishment." [Bateson 2011] Photo courtesy Pexels.

Cognitive biases — by definition — systematically skew the way we think away from a rational, evidence-based mode that we like to believe we use. Under the influence of some cognitive biases, our decisions and choices are more likely to slant toward (away) from what attracts (repels) us. When we're trying to grasp or understand what our collaborators are doing or intending to do, cognitive biases can create or exacerbate disjoint awareness of what our collaborators are up to.

Not surprisingly, the effects of cognitive biases on disjoint awareness are more significant when the relationships among collaborators are weak or impersonal, or when they have histories of tense interactions. For example, in most organizations, Marketing and Product Engineering are engaged in a collaboration. In some organizations they do work closely together. But in many organizations the people involved don't regard each other as teammates. It is this latter case that would be more likely to exhibit the unwelcome effects of cognitive biases in creating or exacerbating disjoint awareness.

Here are examples of how two of the better-known cognitive biases might bring about disjoint awareness.

Confirmation bias
Briefly, confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret information so as to confirm one's preconceptions. Confirmation bias can contribute to disjoint awareness by slanting the body of information we use to determine what our collaborators are doing, and by slanting how we interpret that information.
For example, suppose Quinn and Reggie lead two tasks of a large project. And suppose that Quinn distrusts Reggie. If an occasion arises that calls for Quinn to choose between negotiating with Reggie over a perceived transgression, or alternatively to take his complaint to the project leader for resolution, confirmation bias can make Quinn more likely to complain to the project leader. He does this because his perception of Reggie's transgression confirms his distrust of Reggie. Thus, confirmation bias tends to strengthen Quinn's disjoint awareness of what Reggie supposedly has done. The result might be enhanced risk that the project team might not achieve its objectives.
Self-serving bias
Self-serving bias is almost universally defined as the tendency of individuals to attribute success to their own abilities and efforts, but attribute failure to external factors or to the actions of others [Campbell 1999]. This pattern is obviously capable of distorting our views of reality, and in particular, our views of what our collaborators are doing or intending to do. That is, it can potentially contribute to disjoint awareness within collaborations.
For example, Some cognitive biases can
distort our views of what
our collaborators are doing
or intending to do
consider a group exercise commonly known as a retrospective — also known as a "post mortem," "after-action review," or a number of similar terms. The goal of these exercises is organizational learning. The collaborators want to know what went right and why it went right; what went wrong and why it went wrong; and what can be done differently to improve the outcome in similar future efforts. Self-serving bias reduces the chances of uncovering the truths about these questions, because it distorts participants' views of each other's actions — it exacerbates disjoint awareness.

Of the hundreds of identified cognitive biases, many undoubtedly contribute to disjoint awareness in collaborations. Strong candidates for further contemplation are the fundamental attribution error, the ultimate attribution error, the false consensus effect, the Semmelweis effect, and authority bias. Have a look at these or other biases you're curious about, and investigate how they might contribute to disjoint awareness. What you learn from such an exercise could help you mitigate risks in your collaborations. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Bateson 2011]
Melissa Bateson, Suzanne Desire, Sarah E. Gartside, and Geraldine A. Wright. "Agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases." Current Biology 21:12 (2011): 1070-1073. Available here. Back
[Campbell 1999]
W. Keith Campbell and Constantine Sedikides. "Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration," Review of General Psychology 3:1 (1999), 23-43. Available here. Retrieved September 2, 2019. Back

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