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Unconscious Bias - Affinity Bias

Affinity Bias

When we get along really well with someone, when we create deep rapport, it is mostly because we find something in common with the other person. There seems to be a default programme in our brain that goes “You are like me...so I like you!”.

While this thinking can prove very helpful when bonding with others (and this works with everyone, we just have to dig deep enough to find something in common with the other person), this feeling of rapport does risk stopping us from evaluating a person based on their merits.

Here are two typical scenarios we noticed in recruitment and selection processes:

  1. An applicant studied at the same school/university we did. Wow, that must mean that they are intelligent, competent and a really good fit for the team, right?. Why? Because we intelligent, competent and a really good fit with the team, and it is often difficult to imagine that someone with a similar background could be so very different in personality, effectiveness and team spirit.

  2. When working with an organisation on their recruitment strategy, Summit had the opportunity to review the CVs of applicants that had been discarded or not put forward for the first round of interviews during a recent recruitment campaign.

When we observed that 90% of all the applicants from University X had been put into the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” pile, we asked whether that common thread had been noticed by the HR team responsible for sifting applications. The answer was that “We don’t have anything against that University or their students, but if you know anything about town X, you know that people from there don’t like to move away, so why should we bother inviting them?”


Affinity bias can be used very positively when it comes to sales or negotiations, because we tend to agree better quality deals with those we like (check Cialdinis’s laws of influence and persuasion).

But if you and/or your organisation uses affinity bias as a shortcut for making well-thought out and rational decisions, you risk trusting our instincts more than your reason. This might feel right but the rule of thumb should be:-

If it is too easy to make a hiring decision and if you just “know” that the person will fit in, you would benefit from asking yourself “Is there a possibility that I judged that person too positively based on their background?”. Ask a colleague to mismatch and challenge your thinking so s/he can provide an alternative, more detached perspective.

Another useful suggestion would be to ensure that we are not alone in making the decision. Share the responsibility of making the final decision with someone else and don’t tell them your preference. If they present a different recommendation to yours, don’t fight for your gut instinct. Rather, ask them what factors influenced their decision the most. If it is very different from what you thought should be the deciding factor, check whether you might have been a victim of affinity bias. You might still be right in your decision, but your organisation deserves you to be able to justify that you were not wrong based on rational thinking.

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