What the NCAA tournament teaches us about decision bias

It’s that time of year again — when die-hard sports fans (and even some non-sports fans) start filling out their bracket picks as they make their predictions for the NCAA tournament, a.k.a. “March Madness.”

I am an alumnus of a major NCAA Division I basketball school — Syracuse University. Syracuse alumni are well-known for their school spirit and love of their alma mater. As such, SU alums regularly wear their school spirit on their sleeve — often, literally. As an alum, I can relate; much of my wardrobe is orange. Anyone who knows me knows that I bleed Syracuse Orange.

Of course, I am the first to admit that my devotion to my alma mater often influences my decisions when I make my NCAA tournament picks. If I filled out my bracket completely with my heart, I would have Syracuse winning it all every single year (and who cares about the remainder of my picks). As such, each year when I fill out my bracket, my bias toward my beloved Orange often influences my picks. Each year, a part of me starts rationalizing how the Orange will defeat (fill in name of opponent here). I’ll often have thoughts such as, “so-and-so has a hot shooting streak going,” or “our opponent usually struggles against the 2-3 zone,” and so on. More often than not, my heart overrides my head when I pick my Orange to upset their higher-ranked opponent. Of course, I usually end up disappointed as my Orange are sent back home to Syracuse.

The bias works in reverse as well. Anyone who follows college basketball knows about Syracuse’s heated rivalry against the hated Georgetown Hoyas. As such, we Syracuse fans are likely to pick against Georgetown in their part of the bracket. (That said, I watched Georgetown play in this year’s Big East tournament final, and they looked like world-beaters. They’re seeded #12 vs. #5 Colorado in this year’s tournament. I wouldn’t bet against them. If you’re looking for a #12 to upset a #5, you could do worse than this one.)

I believe that there’s a professional lesson to be gleaned from this: our biases often get in the way.

We all have biases of some sort. They come from our worldview, our culture, how we were raised, what we’ve learned, and our belief systems. Everyone has a perspective on how they see the world, and everyone tends to be biased against anything that doesn’t align with that perspective. We’ve seen extreme examples of this throughout the world over the past few years (don’t worry, I will not talk about politics here). At the professional level, our worldview often affects decisions that we make. These biases often establish themselves as blind spots, so no matter how much we claim to be “unbiased,” we often don’t know that they’re there. Probably one of the biggest oxymorons is “unbiased decision.” Realistically, there is no such thing. This isn’t necessarily a deficiency; rather, this is part of what makes us human.

So what can we do to reduce (not eliminate — that is unlikely) bias? For one thing, keep an open mind — no matter what you think, realize that there might be another way. To rattle off a couple of clichés, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat*,” and “minds are like parachutes — they only work when they’re open.” Empathy often goes a long way as well. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes — what would this person think if you were in his or her position? I’ve often found that this approach makes me more successful professionally; it improves my work quality, and it brings projects to a better conclusion. Effective communication (another topic for another time) is crucial here; it adjusts your thought process and helps you to achieve that end.

(*I like cats — I have two of my own — so I tend to not like this saying.)

I would also think about what could happen with a decision. There are some decisions that are okay to make with your heart — proposing to your significant other, for example — but there’s also something to be said about listing the pros and cons of a decision. Do the benefits outweigh the issues? Can you live with the consequences if something goes wrong? And so on it goes.

Making decisions is hard to do — this is why managers often get paid the big bucks. If you’re able to minimize the amount of bias that goes into your decision-making, chances are you’ll do alright.

(And by the way… GO ORANGE!!!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.