A few years back I was at a conference and one of the speakers, a renowned researcher in cognitive bias, told us a riddle. Perhaps you’ve heard it yourself. It goes like this: “A man and his son get into a car accident. The man is pronounced dead on site. The son is alive but in critical condition. The paramedics get him to the hospital and into the ER. The doctor enters and says ‘I cannot operate on this boy. He’s my son.’ How can this be?”
My whole table wracked our brains trying to figure it out. Were the boy’s parents perhaps a same sex couple (a possible, but not the most statistically likely answer)? Was it perhaps a case of mistaken identity? Was it a matter of having an adoptive and biological father? None of the above. The answer is simple: the doctor is the boy’s mother. Easy, right? You’d be surprised how many people I’ve posed this riddle to who don’t get the answer—including a lot of women.
Why is this riddle so difficult when the answer is so obvious? When you read the riddle, did you imagine the doctor as a man? Was he white? Maybe a bit older? There was nothing in the riddle to indicate that the doctor was male. So why do so many people not get the answer?
In Canada, as of 2020, the percentage of family physicians who are women was 48.5 per cent, 38.8 per cent for specialists. So, while it’s somewhat more likely that a doctor is a man, it’s not statistically significant, least of all to make this riddle impossible or even difficult to solve. If a random doctor walked into an ER 10 times, you should expect that doctor to be female at least four times. But the human brain—ever the pattern-recognition machine, living in a world where there are slightly more male doctors than female and with media that presents many doctors as men—has built much more synaptic connections between the idea of male and the idea of doctor than with the idea of female and the idea of doctor. The result is that for many of us, when we imagine a doctor, we imagine a man even without any prompting.
Ok, so, what does this have to do with data?
When it comes to using our intuition, our cognitive biases can really get in the way of viewing the world accurately. Take the example above. Many people who struggle with this riddle consider themselves feminists and are sincerely surprised and ashamed when they can’t get the answer. I know that was my experience when it was first presented to me.
Now let’s take the same riddle, but let’s start by pointing out that almost half of all doctors in Canada are female. Do you think your answer would be different if you were primed with this information? Would your cognitive bias be so front and centre?
It’s unlikely that we would have so much difficulty solving this riddle if we had been recently reminded that so many doctors are women. Data in this case therefore helps to remove the filter that we have over our intuition.
The obvious implication of this is in hiring. If we harbour biases that cause us to link specific genders or ethnic groups with certain types of work, then it can impact the types of people we add to our teams, which hurts not only the qualified individuals who get passed over but the businesses who are missing out on their talent. Do some of us perhaps think that millennials are lazy, or that boomers can’t learn new things? Are these biases really true or are they just an artifact of our non-randomized life experiences? Even if these biases have truth to them (they don’t), then our brains are still likely to overstate the relationships we think we’re seeing. The ultimate result is suboptimal decisions that are costly to everyone involved.
[Related: Maciej Lipinski: “Bias at the door”]
Is there any reason to think that this issue doesn’t extend to other areas of our businesses and lives? Could cognitive bias affect which products or services we want to roll out? Maybe which geographic regions to operate in, or which clients to take on, or not?
Well, data can help with this. Data has the benefit of having a much higher likelihood of being unbiased. No, data is not there to replace our intuition or gut feelings. Business can’t be run using algorithms alone. But what it can do is remind us that the patterns our brains see may not be real, or at least not as strong as we think they are. It can help us to question whether our beliefs about the world are rooted in reality or just a result of our specific life circumstances.
Ultimately, business owners would do well to use data in their decision-making. Whether it’s data about their industry, the economy, their own business, or—better yet—all of the above, it can be an incredibly powerful tool to help owner-managers make better decisions.
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