Cognitive bias series #1: Why your biased brain is ruining your meetings


Meetings get a bad rep. They waste time, keep people from their work and sometimes don’t seem to get us anywhere. But why are meetings so unproductive? One reason is cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases are our tendency to come to a conclusion about something in a way which is not based on objective information. Some biases, called heuristics, can be helpful as they allow us to quickly make connections between things to come to a decision – for example, seeing clouds may prompt you to take an umbrella with you.

However, using mental shortcuts can also lead to bad decision-making, because it’s based on past information may not be relevant in the current situation. After all, this is the UK… clouds don’t always mean it will rain!

While getting the weather wrong is a small problem, cognitive biases present a big one for large organisations when it comes to strategic decision-making. Worst of all, they’re pretty hard to shift because most of us think we’re not being biased, which is a bias in itself (the blind-spot bias).

Meetings in particular are a hotbed for cognitive biases, and over the course of this series we’ll be talking about how you can spot and correct some of the most common biases that are ruining your meeting outcomes.

Below we look at the worst-offending biases we experience during meetings, and why they are such a big problem.

Base rate bias

Base rate bias happens when we focus a specific piece of information, at the expense of more general data. In meetings, base rate bias is common when discussing product feedback or an individual use case. While the new information may be more interesting, it’s often less relevant, and dwelling on it can ultimately lead to us to making the wrong decisions.

Bandwagon bias

Heard of jumping on the bandwagon? When we’re in groups, we often start to think the same as other people. Groupthink or herd mentality is a killer for creativity and innovation as we start to believe an idea is good one just because lots of other people do.

This is a huge problem in corporate hierarchies, particularly if you have a few strong personalities who seem to always lead the way – a lot of time, it’s the CEO or management themselves, so leaders need to learn how to recognise and manage it.

Law of triviality

It’s perhaps human nature to rather take on a simple task over one that seems difficult or we have little information about. In meetings, the law of triviality presents itself as a topic which everyone has at least some knowledge of, leading to long, drawn-out conversations that focus on something inconsequential.

Good facilitation and setting an agenda ahead of the meeting is key, as this is the ultimate time-waster and doesn’t have great implications on meetings that involve making important decisions or future planning.

While cognitive bias can have huge negative impact an organisation, there are lots of things meeting facilitators and leaders can do to combat them. We’ll be looking at the above examples in more detail over the rest of this series, and give you tips for tackling them.