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Heuristic and Biases Definition & Examples in Psychology

Welcome to the class on the psychological aspects of leadership. In this class, we will learn many heuristics and biases in leaders' decision-making. We will learn how to make decisions as an individual. We will also learn how to make good group decisions. We all know that shared decision-making is important. In this class, we will focus on how to make shared decisions, and how shared decision-making can go horribly wrong. 

Many people ask me why focusing on leaders' decision-making? What's the difference between leaders' decision-making and human decision-making in general? How would you answer this question? The difference between leaders' decision-making and general human decision-making lies in the nature of leadership. The heart of leadership is making decisions that influence others. Leaders' decisions-- big and small, high stakes and low stakes influence people's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Every day we are confronted with countless decisions, from what to eat, whom to hire, whether to fire that school principal, to whether to hire this teacher. The stakes of leaders' decision-making are particularly high when the leaders have more power and authority than others in organizations. Leaders have formal authority granted by rules and policies in an institutionalized system or an organization. For example, at the state level, state education agencies have different decision-making power.

Heuristic and Biases Definition & Examples in Psychology
image source: pexels.com

What you see here is the state government about education. There are 14 states shaded in red color. In those states, a governor appoints the state board of education, and then the state board of education appoints chief state school officers. There are eight states shaded in orange color. In those states, the state board of education is elected, and then the state board of education appoints chief state school officers. In yellow states, a governor appoints the state board of education, but chief state school officers are elected. In states that are shaded in light green, a governor appoints both the state board of education and chief state school officers. All these actors here are decision-makers who have tremendous power over education. At the district level, school board members make decisions on behalf of their constituents.

When you cast a ballot in your local school board elections, you participate in a group decision-making process to decide who can make decisions on your behalf. At the school level, school principals decide primarily in seven areas, according to the data from the National Center for Education Statistics. As you can see, at all levels of governance in education, decision-making power is endowed to those in leadership positions.

Whether a leader shares that decision-making power is another topic. Endowed with power, leaders make decisions that have high stakes and widespread ramifications. We'd like to believe that we make decisions rationally and objectively. We'd like to believe that we are good people, and our decisions are the shining beacon of social justice and education equity. The truth, however, is a far different matter. Many of the heuristics and biases discussed in this class come from the book Thinking Fast and Slow. I highly recommend that you take some time and read this book. In our class, I will focus on the heuristics and the biases to which the leaders are particularly vulnerable. We are susceptible to a wide range of biases in our decision-making.

We all carry biases often at an unconscious level. Biases can consistently, predictably undermine every decision from faculty hiring, giving teachers feedback on their instruction, communicating with the communities, to budgeting. Leaders are expected to make data-informed, evidence-based decisions. Data indeed are like signposts. Without high-quality data, leaders as decision-makers are flying blind. But more often than not, leaders have to make decisions based on incomplete data, uncertainty, ambiguity, conflicting perspectives from stakeholders, unfamiliar team members, and under time pressure in an ever-changing context. In fact, many decisions involve a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty that data-informed decision-making approaches are not equipped to handle. What makes matter worse, we can easily spot other people's biases but have a difficult time being aware of our own biases.

The rationality we think we bring to decision-making is partly an illusion. Let's first define the terms. Before we dive into biases, it is important to understand where biases come from. To describe the origins of biases, we use the term heuristics, which means our mental shortcuts in decision making. When we face complex, uncertain contexts, we resort to heuristics to make decisions. Heuristics are intuitive, unconscious, rapid, and automatic.

Heuristics enable us to make decisions in an efficient manner--so fast that we sometimes cannot even articulate why we make such a decision. Intuitive heuristics sometimes serve leaders well. For example, when a leader takes the helm of a new organization, it can be a good judgment call by respecting the organizational stability, rather than rocking the boat, which is the status quo heuristic. It could also be a good call not to jump on the bandwagon of the newest innovative practice, which is the pro-innovation bias. It could also be an effective way to garner people's buy-in through seeking consensus in the collective decision-making process, which is the conformity effect.

Thanks to the efficiency of heuristics in our decision-making, there is a trade-off between efficiency and accuracy. Heuristics can go wrong sometimes. Looking at the image here. You may see that the blue dot on the left seems smaller than the one on the right. But they are actually in the same size. If you get it wrong, you are not alone. Many people, regardless of their intelligence or what leadership position they assume, get it wrong as well. But what went wrong? To make decisions efficiently, our brains take mental shortcuts--using heuristics to navigate the complex world we're living in. In doing so, we save our precious cognitive and time resources to make the next decision. 

Heuristics enable us to make decisions efficiently. But there is a trade-off between efficiency and accuracy. What's more important, heuristics don't just go wrong for one single individual randomly. Rather they go wrong for most of us. As a result, not only do we make mistakes, but we also make the same mistakes in a predictable way. The predictable systematic errors in our decision-making are called biases. They arise when we apply heuristics instinctively, but inappropriately. To sum up, heuristics are mental shortcuts, and biases are predictable systematic errors in our decision-making. We all carry biases often at an unconscious level. 

Biases undermine our ability to objectively evaluate information and make wise decisions. Over the next 14 weeks, we will learn about different biases that creep into leaders' decisions making. We will also learn how to reduce those biases. We will occasionally probe into human brains to see how our brains work to generate a decision. To make wise decisions, we'd better use our brains to our advantage, instead of working against the mental processes of decision making. Hopefully, this class will help you become a better decision-maker.