What is Affinity Bias – Causes & Examples
Published byat August 21st, 2023 , Revised On October 5, 2023
A cognitive bias has been an inherent part of human cognition for as long as we’ve been around. One such type of bias that often crops up, particularly in professional settings, is affinity bias. Affinity bias occurs when we gravitate towards people with similar attributes or interests as our own. Let’s look into it in detail, referring to both primary source and secondary source materials for validation.
What is Affinity Bias?
Affinity bias, a form of explicit bias, occurs when individuals unconsciously prefer people with similar characteristics, backgrounds, or experiences. This can result in unfair favouritism or discrimination in various settings, such as in hiring or team-building processes.
What are the Causes of Affinity Bias
Affinity bias, sometimes called “similarity bias,” refers to the natural and often subconscious inclination to gravitate toward people who we perceive as similar to ourselves, whether that similarity is based on race, gender, age, background, or a host of other factors.
While this inclination is rooted in the human psyche’s evolutionary predispositions, it has profound implications in modern times, particularly in workplaces where diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical.
Here are some of the causes of affinity basis.
Humans lived in small, closely-knit groups for much of their evolutionary history. Recognising and favouring members of one’s group would have been advantageous for survival. Those who formed tight bonds with their in-group would have better chances of protection, sharing resources, and reproducing.
In these contexts, outsiders or those different from the group could represent potential threats. This evolutionary predisposition to be wary of outsiders and prefer those who resemble ourselves might underpin modern affinity bias.
Our brains are programmed for efficiency. Interacting with, understanding, and trusting someone with similar backgrounds, experiences, or viewpoints is cognitively easier. When faced with someone similar, we can make quicker judgments and predictions about their behaviour based on our own experiences. This cognitive ease often leads to the formation of quicker bonds and rapport, even if these judgments are not necessarily accurate.
Fear of the Unknown
Humans have a general fear or mistrust of the unknown. Interacting with individuals from diverse backgrounds or unfamiliar life experiences requires a cognitive effort to understand and empathise with their perspectives. Affinity bias can be a protective mechanism for sticking with what’s known and avoiding uncertainty.
Reinforcement from Cultural Stereotypes
Mainstream media and societal norms perpetuate certain stereotypes. Over time, these stereotypes can shape our perceptions of various groups. Suppose we are consistently exposed to positive representations of people who look, act, or think like us, and negative or stereotyped representations of those who don’t. In that case, we’re more likely to develop unconscious biases favouring those we relate to.
The Desire for Social Validation
Humans have an inherent need for social validation. Surrounding oneself with like-minded or similar individuals can create an echo chamber that reinforces one’s beliefs, values, and behaviours. This affirmation creates a feeling of being ‘right’ or ‘normal.’
Lack of Exposure
A lack of exposure to diverse cultures, experiences, and backgrounds can exacerbate affinity bias. Suppose an individual grows up in a homogenous environment, perhaps influenced by publication bias in what they read or learn. In that case, they may not have the chance to interact with and understand people from different backgrounds, leading to a preference for what’s familiar.
Sometimes, organisations or institutions may unconsciously foster affinity bias through their practices. Hiring or promoting individuals based on ‘cultural fit’ without a clear definition can lead to selecting individuals based on subjective, biased criteria. Over time, this can create a homogeneous environment that perpetuates affinity bias.
Avoidance of Discomfort
Engaging with people different from oneself can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations, misunderstandings, or conflicts. Some individuals might avoid these situations altogether, further cementing their affinity bias.
Misguided Perceptions of Meritocracy
Many believe our achievements are solely a result of our efforts and abilities. However, numerous studies have shown that people often benefit from hidden advantages that others do not have. When decision-makers believe they are acting purely on merit but are unconsciously influenced by affinity bias, they can unknowingly favour those similar to them.
Mirroring in Socialisation
From a young age, individuals are often encouraged to “mirror” or emulate behaviours, attitudes, and patterns of people they look up to. This can manifest as the Pygmalion effect, where high expectations lead to increased performance. When this mirroring happens predominantly with those similar to oneself, it can solidify affinity biases.
Why is Affinity Bias a Problem?
Here is why affinity bias is a problem.
When leaders or hiring managers consistently prefer similar candidates, it can result in a homogeneous workforce. This limits the range of perspectives, experiences, and ideas that can contribute to innovation and problem-solving.
Reduced Opportunity for Others
If certain groups are consistently preferred because of affinity bias, it means that other potentially talented and qualified individuals are overlooked, not because of their abilities but because of irrelevant factors related to culture, race, gender, etc.
Reinforcement of Stereotypes
When people from certain groups are consistently selected (or not selected) based on affinity rather than merit, it can perpetuate and reinforce societal stereotypes and misconceptions.
Erosion of Meritocracy
A workplace where decisions are influenced by affinity bias is not a true meritocracy. The best ideas and the most qualified individuals may not rise to the top if they don’t align with decision-makers biases.
Reduced Organisational Performance
Diverse teams have performed better in creativity, decision-making, and financial outcomes. Organisations that fall prey to affinity bias might miss out on these benefits.
Increased Potential for Legal Issues
Decisions based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, religion, etc., can lead to discrimination claims and legal repercussions for organisations.
Compromised Morale and Cohesion
When employees perceive bias in decisions, it can lead to resentment, decreased morale, and reduced trust in leadership. This can impact teamwork and overall productivity.
By consistently surrounding oneself with similar-minded individuals, one may not be challenged to think differently or consider alternative perspectives. This can lead to stagnation in personal growth, as well as in business strategies and innovations.
Loss of Talent
If individuals perceive that they are not given equal opportunities due to bias, they may choose to leave the organisation, leading to a loss of talent and institutional knowledge.
Damage to Reputation
In today’s age of transparency and social accountability, organisations that exhibit biased behaviours, even unintentionally, can suffer reputational damage, impacting their ability to attract talent, clients, or customers.
Affinity Bias Examples
How to Avoid Affinity Bias
Here’s how you can avoid affinity bias:
Recognising and admitting the presence of biases is the first step. Awareness training can help in making individuals conscious of their biases.
Invest in diversity and inclusion training. This will address affinity bias and other biases like gender, race, age, etc.
Create a structured recruitment process. For instance, use a standard set of questions for every candidate, reducing the chances of bias influencing the decision-making process.
Ensure that hiring panels are diverse. This can provide a range of perspectives and reduce the impact of individual biases.
Remove personal information that might indicate a candidate’s gender, ethnicity, or other potentially bias-triggering details when screening resumes.
Establish a mechanism where employees can anonymously point out observed biases.
Use data-driven metrics in performance evaluations rather than subjective judgments. This makes the evaluation process more objective and less prone to bias.
Mentoring and Sponsorship
Encourage senior employees to mentor or sponsor employees who are different from them in terms of gender, race, background, etc.
Encourage Diverse Networks
Encourage employees to network with diverse people within the organisation. This can reduce the inclination to always gravitate towards like-minded or similar individuals.
Rotate team members across different projects or teams to break cliques and encourage collaboration among diverse groups.
Celebrate workplace cultures, backgrounds, and traditions. This can foster understanding and appreciation for diversity.
Reflect and Pause
Before making a decision, take a moment to reflect on whether your choice is influenced by affinity bias. Ask yourself, “Would my decision be different if the person was from a different background or had different characteristics?”
Seek External Perspectives
An outsider’s viewpoint can sometimes highlight our inherent biases, especially from a scholarly source. Consider seeking feedback from someone outside your immediate circle or the organisation, and apply a rigorous source evaluation method to understand the credibility of the feedback.
Use tools and tests, like the Implicit Association Test (IAT), to understand your biases. Do not fall for the bias for action by making decisions too hastily; take the time to understand and evaluate your inner biases.
Commit to Continuous Improvement
Recognise that avoiding bias is a continuous journey, not a one-time task. Regularly revisit your strategies and processes to ensure they remain effective.
Frequently Asked Questions
Affinity bias is the unconscious tendency to gravitate towards people who share similar backgrounds, experiences, or interests as our own. This can influence decisions in hiring, promotions, and team formations, potentially leading to a lack of diversity and perpetuating existing inequalities. Recognising and addressing it is key to fostering inclusive environments.
To avoid affinity bias, increase awareness of its existence, diversify your network, use structured decision-making processes, seek diverse input, engage in perspective-taking exercises, and constantly challenge assumptions. Periodically reviewing decisions for bias and implementing bias training can further help organisations ensure fair and diverse practices.
Affinity bias in the workplace is the unconscious preference towards individuals who share similar backgrounds, interests, or experiences as oneself. It can influence hiring, promotions, and team dynamics, potentially reducing diversity and reinforcing existing disparities. Addressing this bias is crucial for creating an inclusive and equitable work environment.
A manager, an avid soccer fan, unconsciously favours employees who play or watch soccer, believing they are more “team-oriented” or “reliable.” Consequently, those sharing the soccer interest get better projects or promotions over equally or more qualified individuals with different interests. This illustrates affinity bias, where similarities unduly influence decisions.
Affinity bias refers to the unconscious tendency to favour people who share similar backgrounds, interests, or experiences. The similarity-attraction effect is a broader psychological principle where individuals are drawn to those with similar attitudes, values, or characteristics.
Affinity bias is a manifestation of the similarity-attraction effect, specifically observed in decision-making contexts.
As a concept, affinity bias emerged from research on unconscious biases and social psychology. It’s not attributed to a single discoverer. Instead, it’s a product of accumulated knowledge about human tendencies to favour in-group members or those similar to oneself. Many researchers have contributed to our understanding of these biases over time.
Affinity bias can lead to unfair hiring, promotions, and collaboration decision-making, limiting diversity and excluding qualified individuals. This stifles innovation and different perspectives, perpetuating homogeneity.
Over time, it can reinforce stereotypes, perpetuate systemic inequalities, and hinder an organisation’s ability to understand and serve diverse populations effectively.