Bias Eraser #6: Affect Heuristic Bias

Imagine this scenario. You’ve been preparing to interview for a sales role at your dream company for weeks. You’ve scoured the internet for advice on how to answer the questions you might be asked. You’ve studied their leadership model and organizational values in depth. And you’ve even tried out their product so you can describe how you would sell it. You have your call with the hiring sales manager and he just doesn’t seem to be all that engaged in the conversation. You know you nailed the interview, but something felt off.

Two days later, your heart is broken as you receive a notice from the recruiter. Instead of interviews with other members of the sales team, they are going to pass. You ask for more feedback and all you learn is that “you just weren’t a good fit compared to other sales candidates.” And now your dreams are shattered! What went so wrong?

Could your hopes and dreams have been quashed simply because the hiring manager was having a bad day? Did the company miss out on hiring a person with a diverse background who could have sold the product to an entirely new client base? It is absolutely possible and as unfair as it seems, you would be just another person who lost out to an unconscious bias known as the Affect Heuristic.

A heuristic is a type of short-cut that our brains use to make decisions with minimal effort. They are about efficiency. So while they help us to make judgments or solve problems more easily, they do so at the cost of accuracy. Affect refers to emotions, feelings, or mood. So the Affect Heuristic occurs our mental shortcuts are heavily influenced by our emotions and mood. Research shows that when people are in a better mood, they tend to be more optimistic about decisions. But when they are in a negative state of mind, they focus more on risks and the lack of perceived benefits related to a decision.

In the hiring process, the Affect Heuristic can lead people to make decisions about a candidate’s probability of success simply based on the emotion they are feeling during the interview. This might mean that a well-qualified sales candidate gets overlooked because the interviewer is in a bad mood and is therefore focused on the risks, or conversely that a poor candidate with zero sales potential gets a second look because the interviewer is missing the risk signs because they are having a good day. But the Affect Heuristic is much more than whether someone is having a good or bad day. It is about how any emotion can create biased decision-making right down to the candidate’s name, favorite sports team, or sound of their voice. Think about how many little things affect human emotion throughout the day and how widespread this bias might be. If a candidate is named after your ex then you might be finding faults, while a poster of your favorite football team in the Zoom background might have you singing praises.

Organizations that are interested in Diversity and Equity should pay close attention to how this bias might unconsciously lead to unfair talent-decisions. Today, companies are spending more energy, time, and effort to ensure a fair and equitable process only to have it good intentions uprooted by someone having a bad day. As Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google puts it “A diverse mix of voices, leads to a better discussion, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.” Shouldn’t your company have that competitive advantage too?

Hiring a human is a very human process. There is no avoiding the reality that the interactions people have with each other will involve emotion. The way to erase bias is to create systems that ensure human emotions you experience due not unduly impact the quality of decision you make. Two tried and true methods that reduce the impact of bias are:

  1. Moving the resume screen later in the process. While the examples included in this article focus on the interview, emotions affect all types of decision-making including the resume screening process. By putting the resume review a little later in the hiring process, it is possible to delay any emotionally-based bias from sneaking in too early.
  2. Deploying a structured interview process. Structured interviews are a method of providing all candidates with the same questions, but more importantly to the Affect Heuristic, they also provide a clear mechanism for scoring candidate responses. Even if someone is having that bad day, a structured interview system will create a more fair mechanism for evaluating that candidate on their potential instead of external factors that have no relevance for future job performance.

Another method to erase bias involves gaining insight into candidates in order to counterbalance what our gut, intuition, and emotion might tell us. This method involves using a scientific assessment process early in the hiring process. Using a talent intelligence system like PerceptionPredict, it is possible to assess talent in a completely objective way. Candidates are judged based on their probability of success in the job and not because something they said or did has triggered the wrong emotion. Further, the use of scientific assessments will provide you with data that can be used in conjunction with your own decision-making thereby giving you an opportunity to become aware of how your own bias may be clouding your judgment. It will help you know if a sales candidate really is great or whether something else is leading you to draw that conclusion. When a person seems unqualified but the scientific data doesn’t agree, it gives us a chance to question our assumptions and challenge our conclusions. In this way, objective assessment data not only provides a way to judge success without human bias, but it also serves as a way to build awareness of our own biased tendencies so that we can work towards erasing them.

Organizations that value diversity, equity, and inclusion have an opportunity to build best practices before employees ever join their companies. For more information about erasing bias from your hiring and recruitment processes, check out LinkedIn’s Diversity Recruiting Training, or tryout this Podcast. I’m also here to help!




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