‘If we all agree, how could we be wrong?’ Biases and the art of (online) discussions

By September 9, 2021Blog

Blog 7, of the series ‘Possible impacts of the current pandemic on international negotiation processes’.

By Frank Lavadoux, Olivia Brown, and Mathias Delmeire

Welcome back! It’s been a while. We hope you enjoyed your summer break.

A few months ago, we discussed how our brain can sometimes be our own worst enemy when we are in an online setting. The type of information our brain is receiving is completely different compared to our beloved face-to-face interactions. This means the way our brain processes the information is totally different too. This leads us to a potential cognitive overload (information on the cognitive overload and the ways to overcome it can be found here).

Aside from the cognitive overload, there is another type of challenge that might occur and be exacerbated when dealing with people online: biases. A bias is a logical fallacy our brain will commit when interpreting the codes and information it receives during any kind of information – we have already talked about confirmation bias here. There are many different types of biases which can be loosely sorted into a few different ‘families’: the ones occurring withing our own perceptions and reflections (or so-called egocentric biases), the ones occurring within a social context, and finally, the in-group biases, encompassing multiple forms of biases happening within a defined group. As the online shift can exacerbate the in-group biases in particular, this blog post will take a deeper look at this subgroup and examine what to watch out for.

We will focus on three of them today, as they are the most relevant to understand the shifting dynamics happening in a meeting – be it face-to-face or online. Let’s take a deeper look at this subgroup and highlight the potential pitfalls that may be derailing our virtual discussions.

Groupthink

The bias causing us to settle on a less desirable agreement, without taking the time to explore alternative options due to the potential for disagreement/conflict within the group.

If you regularly work in big teams, this one will certainly be no surprise for you – especially at the EU level. Research shows that when in a group, we tend to make more suboptimal and/or irrational decisions to avoid as many conflicts as possible with the other members of the group. The urge to find conformity is so strong we give up exploring alternatives and working to find a better suited decision to protect the unity of the group.

Now, that is not to say that there is always a better alternative. However, the bias lies in the very fact that other alternatives are left unexplored as we seek to go towards complete homogeneity in the group. Moreover, if we add the bandwagon effect, homogeneity within the group happens quickly and the not-so-effective decision is taken without much afterthought.

In an online setting, the groupthink bias could happen more often as it is obviously harder to make your voice heard. Trying to speak becomes a whole process of unmuting your microphone without speaking over someone else – and that’s assuming your internet is stable enough to carry your message across. This means that those trying to share/promote a new approach, which is already an uphill battle, have an extra hurdle to overcome. Depending on which side you find yourself on, try to think about unexplored possibilities and present them to the group.

The halo effect

The bias making us attribute all the good (or the bad) coming from a group to only one person, creating an imbalance in the efforts and compromises the others around the table offer.

We’re willing to bet that as you read the definition, a certain someone sprung to mind. We have all crossed paths with people who always seemed take credit for something the whole team had worked on. The halo effect means that in an online discussion, we tend to focus our energy on a person who seems to be more charismatic, or more hard-working or even more knowledgeable on the matter at hand. The keyword in this last sentence is ‘seems’. Indeed, we need to look objectively and find a way to know who exactly has done what to understand the real people who will actually get us where we want to go. This is especially true online, when we can’t really see the work done before a meeting, and particularly if the promises that are being made are something our interlocutor can live up to. Also consider this bias if we happen to be negotiating: are we objectively talking with the person that could grant us what we need, or are we being blindsided by the halo effect?

Attribution bias

The bias making us attribute the failure of a task to the personality of the person who was supposed to perform said task, instead of attributing it to external factors.

Don’t get us wrong, sometimes it’s a matter of personality and competence (or lack of) but more often than not, the completion of a task is actually linked to other factors beyond the control of any one actor. The attribution bias exists in the face-to-face setting; however, it can easily be overcome by informal conversation and ‘coffee-chat’, allowing us to see the person beyond the failed task. The risk, when working and negotiating online, is that we forget to differentiate between the task and the person because we only see them during the sporadic and limited online interaction, usually about the task in question. This bias can then make it harder to collaborate with them in the future.

As we’ve already written, there is no magical way to escape cognitive biases. So, you might be wondering, why bother at all writing this piece? As a matter of fact, being aware that they exist and taking them into consideration is the best way to limit their influence. This will help us in making better decisions and ultimately in becoming better negotiators. Understanding how brains work when communicating forces us to consider things such as whether everyone around the table has actually spoken, or if there is a need to go and check with co-workers outside meetings. There are multiple ways to fight off our own biases, and each solution could be of a casuistic nature, particularly since the hybridisation of our ways of working is well underway. Over the course of this new academic year, we will keep on discussing the potential impact the pandemic has had on online negotiations – be it from matter of cyber security to the importance of soft-skills, or the way to handle a hybrid negotiating table. As per last year, every month a new part of the three complexities of our negotiation Rubik’s Cube will be further explored … see you next month!

Read blog onetwothree (part 1), and (part 2)four, five and six of the series ‘Possible impacts of the current pandemic on international negotiation processes’ by the Negotiation Team. 

Do you have questions? Contact the Negotiation Team negotiationteam@eipa.eu.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of EIPA.

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