Our information processing is biased

Knowing about an issue isn’t enough. How we perceive a social issue is highly biased and skewed based on subjective relevance and experience. Before a man has a daughter, discrimination towards women is mostly statistics and numbers. After he has a daughter, it becomes a personal concern.

A couple of months ago, a study from Stockholm School of Economics, Erasmus University and Jönköping University was released that got some media attention in Sweden. What the researchers found was that in companies with a male CEO, the percentage of women employed increased by 11 % on average after the CEO had a daughter, compared to a son. In other words, companies that have a male CEO with a daughter are more equal. This has been called the "daughter effect".

This study is just an example of how our behaviors, attitudes, and feelings toward societal issues are directly impacted by our personal experiences. Many of us don’t feel engaged and inclined to do something about it until we have a first-hand experience (or via a person close to us) of prejudice, discrimination, or stereotypes. Before that, many of us walk around thinking that our experience is a reliable source of information on how we should think and behave.

Another example is people’s concern and action (or rather inaction) around the climate crisis. Despite compelling evidence for rapid climate change and the urgency of the issue (IPCC, 2022), there are individuals who remain skeptical about the risk and reality of climate change. Studies have shown that a critical factor in perceiving the threat of climate change is to personally experience extreme weather events or local weather changes (Spence et al., 2011; Zaval et al., 2014).

Pay attention to and counteract biases with behavioral science

We are all biased and these biases impact our decisions and behaviors all the time, subconsciously or consciously. To be fair, they have served us well in our prehistoric struggle for survival, helping us make swift decisions to, for example, run away from a tiger. But in a modern world, they are sometimes too one-dimensional and based on – as mentioned – a personal perception that’s not objective nor very effective to help us deal with more complex and nuanced issues.
Our biases will not go away but we can defuse their impact on us. The first step is to pay attention to them, which strategies, models, and insights from behavioral science help us to do. Detecting what cognitive factors influence our attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and decision-making is necessary to create behavioral interventions that will influence people to behave differently. Whether it’s becoming less gender biased in recruitment processes as a CEO or more caring about the climate.