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The Biggest Challenge in Analytics – Overcoming Your Biases

It’s just data, how can it be biased? It’s not – you are. Learn how your perceptions are the biggest challenge in analytics.

The Biggest Challenge in Analytics

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 

There are many challenges for researchers and analysts in the field of business analytics. One of the biggest issues is overcoming biases. Here, we take a look at some common ones; how to avoid them; and suggest ways to make sure you don’t fall into traps set by your inner subjective view of the world.

First off, what do I mean by “bias”?

There are two things that should be distinguished – explicit bias (which can also be called explicit beliefs or preferences) and implicit bias (also called implicit social cognition). Explicit biases refer to our conscious thoughts about other people or groups of people which affect ours towards them. These might be conscious or unconscious. 

There’s a huge amount of research on this topic – so I’ll just very briefly list some examples of explicit bias:

Positive attitude towards your in-group (your family, your company, your football team) and negative attitudes towards out groups (a different company, a rival football team). Women as the primary career for children. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender etc.

Implicit biases are more subtle and often not accessible to conscious awareness. They’re not necessarily deliberate or malicious. Rather they represent our tendency to automatically think about people from groups X, Y and Z in a certain way. In fact, many implicit biases run counter to our explicit values as rational beings! But we experience them as very real feelings and thoughts.

For example:

Out group homogeneity – 

All group members are perceived as being more similar to one another than they actually are, compared with how heterogenous the out group is in reality. Illusory correlation – a tendency to see a relationship between two variables when in fact there is no link at all. 

Minimal group paradigm – 

In this well-known study, participants were randomly assigned into groups and then given tasks that involved them working together towards common goals. Despite being told that the groups were random and meaningless, group members immediately exhibited negative attitudes towards other groups if their membership was merely arbitrary (and not based on something important like geographical location). 

In-group favoritism – 

Even in simple games where participants were rewarded for work done, they would tend to reward members of their own out group more than the other group. This shows favoritism towards in-group members, at the expense of disadvantaged or unprivileged groups.

Favoring our initial impressions – 

We tend to favor people who we initially like, even if later information means that this assessment must be revised. At first glance, you might think someone is really nice and funny – but once you get to know them better, you realize they’re self-centered jerks who are only nice when it suits their purposes. You’ve experienced this before! Sadly, our tendency to favor our gut reactions over subsequent evidence seems to be pretty hardwired into the way our brains work. Let’s take a look at some ways to avoid falling into the trap of bias.

What can we do?

First of all, if you’re aware that you might be biased, then at least you’re on your way!

Next time you feel like assuming someone who’s part of a different (or disadvantaged) group is guilty until proven innocent, or gaining an instant impression and favoring it over subsequent evidence; check yourself. Try and think objectively about whatever situation or scenario you find yourself in. Don’t let your feelings or gut reactions guide your thinking without subjecting them to rational scrutiny. Think about whether there could be more than one explanation for what’s going on – not just the most obvious one which might have been influenced by your bias.

And always ask yourself: “How would I feel if this was happening to me?”

If you’re aware of your conscious or unconscious biases, the next step is to try and determine which are leading to errors in your thinking. If you can’t identify your own biases, then it’s probably going to be very difficult for you to address them! Try taking the Implicit Association Test. From their website: “The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The strength of an association between two concepts represents the automatic preference for one category over another.”

Conclusion:

Implicit biases run counter to our explicit values as rational beings. We experience them as very real feelings and thoughts, but they often lead to errors of judgment. Our innate tendency is to favor our initial impressions of people from other groups, but this can hold us back from valuing the individual just as a person. We need to be aware of this problem and check ourselves when we feel like judging someone before getting all the facts – or favoring our first impulse over what we learn later on.

For more insight into business analytics, make sure you come back and visit some of these other posts.

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