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Unconscious bias is not the only bias: 13 biases to watch out for


Unconscious bias gets publicity but is far from the only bias. This guide outlines the 13 cognitive biases that can poison your perspective.

All humans suffer from cognitive biases. Biases impair rational judgement, decision making and problem solving in social and workplace scenarios.

According to a McKinsey & Company article, ‘Debiasing business decision making has drawn board-level attention, as companies doing it are achieving marked performance improvements.’

The article goes on to share that a McKinsey survey of nearly 800 board members and chairpersons revealed that ‘reducing decision biases’ is their number-one aspiration for improving performance. This research reinforces that prioritising bias awareness, and debiasing programs at an individual and organisational level, is critical to reducing the associated negative effects. These include a decline in profits, productivity and employee engagement, to name a few.

Unconscious bias is not the only bias. Where to start?

You may have only heard widely of unconscious bias, but according to the experts, there are over 175 biases! Here are 13 biases that may prove useful to understand as you endeavour to recode your mind for optimal change:

  1. Affective forecasting

You tend to predict that how you will feel in the future will match how you feel now. For example, if you are on the brink of burnout now, it is likely that you can’t foresee how you could possibly be in a different state in the future.

  1. Pessimism bias

You tend to overestimate the likelihood of negative things happening to you in the future. For example, let’s say you are advised that, due to a restructure, you are going to have to report to a new leader. You instantly believe this will have an adverse effect.

  1. Negativity bias

You tend to recall unpleasant memories and experiences more than positive ones. The evolutionary purpose of being hardwired for negativity is to keep you safe in the future. Here, the expression ‘once bitten, twice shy’ rings true.

  1. Normalcy bias

You tend to underestimate the possible effects of a disaster taking place. For example, as a leader, you may be at risk of underestimating the impact of burnout from organisational change. You tell yourself, ‘I’ll think about the consequences later.’

  1. Status quo bias

You tend to have an emotional bias towards things staying the same. For example, you may not understand the need for change and business transformation. You might say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the way things are done around here.’

  1. Loss aversion bias

You tend to estimate the pain of loss twice as much as the pleasure of gains. For example, you experience twice as much negative emotion after hearing you will lose your fixed desk to hot-desking, even though the benefits of hot-desking have been outlined.

  1. Unconscious bias

You hold unconscious bias beliefs about social stereotypes that results in categorising. For example, your decision to hire a new team member solely because they suit the workplace culture is a form of similarity bias that can result in groupthink.

Unconscious thought patterns or unconscious bias lead to distortions of perception without us noticing. So when it comes to slef-reflection, it helps to keep in mind some of the things that are happening. So to bring them to consciousness and thus to reduce the unconscious bias.

  1. Bandwagon effect

You tend to do (or believe) things because many other people believe the same. For example, as more team members begin to trial and adopt a new technology, you are more likely to follow suit and hop on the bandwagon, too.

  1. Curse of knowledge

When you are better informed, you find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people. For example, the executive team may underestimate the level of overwhelm experienced by junior staff.

  1. Black-and-white thinking

You tend to claim there are only ‘either/or’ or two alternatives available. Psychologists refer to this polarisation as ‘splitting’. In essence, you cannot find a rational middle ground and, thus, default to one of two extreme ends.

  1. IKEA effect

You place a disproportionately high value on products or initiatives that you partially created, (similar to investment in the furniture process from IKEA). For example, if you co-create a change initiative, you are more likely to be invested in the outcome.

  1. Attentional bias

Your perception tends to be influenced by recurring thoughts. For example, if you are ruminating about how you are going to cope with more stress, this will limit your openness to different perspectives about what the future will hold.

  1. Fundamental attribution error

You tend to internally judge a person’s character or personality based on their (negative) behaviour, rather than taking into account the situational factors. For example, a tardy employee is automatically viewed as lazy.

By now, you may be starting to realise that it is human nature to think and behave irrationally due to cognitive biases. So how can you de-bias yourself?

It’s a two-step process:

  1. Build your self-awareness so that you recognise when a bias is in play.
  2. Actively choose to disarm by using the power of the pause in the first instance.

Slow down to recognise the situation and present cognitive bias in the moment, not in hindsight.  Some of you may opt to print out a cheat sheet and place it in your compendium or pin it up on your office wall for quick reference.

As Monkey Mind author Daniel Smith puts it, ‘This is why therapists go to such lengths to urge their anxious patients away from intellectualisation: The first step toward peace is disarmament.’

About Ciara Lancaster

Ciara Lancaster is a change fatigue and resilience specialist at Reimagine Change. Her focus is to help leaders at all levels to manage uncertainty, mitigate stress and modernise their mindset. She is also the author of the new book Reimagine Change: Escape change fatigue, build resilience and awaken your creative brilliance. For more information on Ciara’s work visit

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