At a networking event recently, I met two new people. Let’s call them Sarah and Kate. Both were smart, dynamic, professional women and both were good potential contacts for me. I clicked right away with Kate. She had red hair and in many ways reminded me of a younger me, determined, energised, and ambitious. Sarah was nice. She was chatty and pleasant, liked the same sports as I do, but I didn’t feel the same connection as I did with Kate.
After the event I followed up with Kate but not Sarah.
Now, have you ever noticed when you are in the market to buy a new car, say a Honda, that all of a sudden there are heaps of Honda ads on TV. Or each car you stop next to at the lights is a Honda? What about when you or your partner is pregnant, do you notice that suddenly you seem to be surrounded by pregnant people?
Every day we are exposed to about 11 million pieces of information or data to process. When we drive or catch the train to work, when we interact with our families, when we watch TV or read the paper on the internet we are bombarded with data to sort through and make sense of. Our brains do not have the cognitive resources however to process 11 million pieces of information so we have created shortcuts to help us out. These short cuts are like a perceptual lens that filters out certain things and lets others in, depending on our perceptions, interpretations, experiences, preferences, cultural heritage, family life, gender, age etc. As a result of these pre-established filters, we see things, hear things, and interpret them differently than other people might. Or we might not even see them at all! These are our unconscious biases. At the time we don’t realise that our perceptive lens enables us to see certain things and miss others, depending on the focus of our biases. Our patterns of belief and their impact are so deeply ingrained, and so concealed in our unconscious, it becomes difficult for us to fully understand their impact on our decision-making.
So what does this mean? It means that when we meet people, when we walk down the street, when we go to buy a car, for example, we make a hundred different decisions based on our biases. We don’t know we are doing this. We don’t realise that we form an impression of someone immediately and that we unconsciously pick up information about them to support that impression. Like Kate and Sarah for example. On paper they were pretty much the same, but because I could relate to Kate, because she was ‘like me’, my motivation to follow her up and get to know her was greater than that for Sarah, who was less ‘like me’.
Recent research conducted by Lauren Rivera of North-Western University in November 2012 in which she interviewed 120 professionals (non HR) at investment banks, law firms and management consultancies found that they more often hired candidates who shared their values and interests, or were ‘like me’. When asked to hire people who were intelligent, good communicators with strong social skills and with no guidelines on how to evaluate those qualities, the professionals tended to ask themselves 'Do I want to have a beer with this person?' rather than 'can they do this job?'.
Still not convinced? Watch the video below.