The Unfair Lizard

by Steve Haffner


We value fairness. Even though we often tell our kids, “life isn’t fair,” we still strive to make decisions that are well-reasoned and equitable for all. Unfortunately, there is a part of our brain that has a different agenda than we do and has a strong influence over our decision making. The reptilian brain, or as I prefer to call it—the lizard brain—is the most primitive part of our mental machinery and works in our subconscious. Its only job is to keep us alive. That’s it. It couldn’t care less about fairness.

How does it keep us alive? By helping us make quick decisions. When we have uncertainty, it will take shortcuts and introduce biases to help us decide. For example, the lizard brain wants us to view unfamiliar situations and people as threatening. Therefore, we have a bias to favor people and things that are more familiar to us.

That can be problematic. Even when we think our actions are unbiased and inclusive, the lizard brain carries millions of years of unconscious cognitive biases that can subvert our decision making and make us behave in ways that are counter to our own values.

One prime example is with hiring practices. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell reported on his study of Fortune 500 Companies and found that compared to the average male, male CEOs average three inches taller. Why? Because we subconsciously feel that physical stature equals leadership. In the animal kingdom, which is where the lizard brain developed, leaders (“alphas”) are usually chosen by physical stature. But that’s probably not a great criterion to use in hiring someone to run the company.

Studies have shown that other physical attributes contribute to hiring decisions as well, including attractiveness and weight. This is called the affect heuristic, and the most diabolical part is that we are usually unaware that we are influenced at all. We also have a bias for our own in-groups. Whether it is age, gender, race, nationality, or social class, people who are more like us tend to get preferential treatment.

So, what can we do? One helpful method is to de-identify resumes. Make it a policy to enter all resumes into a standard format before they are seen by the hiring manager. Only transfer information pertinent to the candidate’s experience and suitability for the position. Remove gender, age, college, birthplace, current address, even name—anything that is not relevant. (A person’s name can indicate ethnicity.)

Another tendency is to over-value the personal interview. Studies have shown that the interview is a much poorer indicator of future job performance than other factors such as experience and education, but it gets weighted much higher. This is problematic because the interview is another area where subconscious identity bias can creep in.

Taking steps to remove the lizard brain’s influence can lead to better hiring and more diversity, and that can pay big dividends.

IAAP works with the best trainers in the industry to ensure you have relevant, engaging, practical content at your fingertips. This blog is written by a speaker with a program in the IAAP Approved Programs database. Search by name or keyword to find their contact information and book them for your Branch or Region event.

Steve Haffner is a keynote speaker and mental performance expert. | 502.419.4272

Twitter: @SteveHaffner



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