Reflecting on Our Biases

by Denise Koufogiannakis
University of Alberta Libraries

Reflection is an important part of evidence based practice. The principle has been embraced by those who aim to practice in an evidence-based manner because being an evidence based practitioner is not just about the evidence itself, but about the process of how and why we use that evidence. To date, reflection has generally been inserted into the evidence based process towards the end of the cycle, prompting one to look reflectively back on what was done in order to reach a decision. One reflects on such questions as: what evidence did I find and use; what evidence was lacking; what happened during the decision making process; did the chosen implementation work; what did I personally learn; what would I change next time? Reflection has also largely been considered an individual and private act that a professional undertakes for self-improvement.

I’d like to propose that we begin the process of reflection earlier in the process, specifically as it pertains to the biases we have in relation to a particular question or problem at hand. And, since library decisions are frequently made in groups, we should make reflection on our biases a shared act with colleagues who are also engaged in finding a solution to the problem. As we strive to incorporate evidence into our decision making, it is important to be aware of the biases that we all bring to finding, interpreting, weighing, and using evidence. We work in organizations, large or small, with others – we all have different perspectives, motivations, and desires. Decision making as part of a group is not easy! We need to be conscious of how the biases of each group member and the collective dynamic might influence the process. Through reflection and openness, we may be able to limit our biases and therefore make better decisions.

In practical terms, what this means is being upfront with our colleagues, and where a group has been tasked to make a decision or put forward recommendations on a specific new initiative or review of an existing area, that we have conversations about our biases from the very start. This requires that each person reflect on how they are considering and approaching the problem or question, what their initial reaction was, what they hope will be the outcome, and any other preconceived notions they have related to the issue. It also means that collectively, the group discusses and acknowledges the various biases, and consciously moves forward with the intent to address all biases so that they do not adversely affect the final decision. Doing this may be a bit risky for each individual, but it creates a climate in which trust can be built, and the group can proceed with an open and transparent approach to their decision making. It means that in all likelihood, more sources of evidence will be sought and considered, potential solutions will not be dismissed out of hand, and a sound approach will be chosen.

Here are some common biases people have, and without being aware of them, they may adversely affect our decision making:
• overconfidence bias – when people think they know more than they actually do
• confirmation bias – when people gather information selectively in order to confirm what they already think
• framing bias – when people make different decisions depending upon how information is presented
• representative bias – when people rely on stereotypes and predict outcomes based on past situations
• anchoring bias – when people rely too heavily on one piece of information
(Robbins, 2005; Greenberg and Baron, 2008)

For more on biases within the workplace, I recommend this brief overview by Rykersmith (2013) who provides a list of 5 biases in decision making, based on the research of Lovallo and Sibony (2010). While taken from business, the advice soundly applies to decision making within libraries, and provides ways for us to spot these biases and overcome them.

Recognizing your own biases or those within your group is important. Here are some questions to ask yourself and your group, in order to identify possible biases and discuss them.
• What is my natural inclination with respect to this problem? Do I already think I know the answer for what is best?
• Am I picking and choosing evidence that only suits my predetermined notion?
• If I have passionate feelings about this topic, why is that? Is there an important ethical or professional principle that needs to be considered within the decision?
• Are there other people with opposing views that I find difficult to discuss the problem with, and this is clouding my judgement?
• Am I reacting due to my own motivations/desires? Is a potential change going to impact me personally and therefore I am afraid of it?
• Am I easily influenced by one particular piece of evidence? Why might that be? Why did that piece of evidence impress me?
• Do I stand to gain or lose based on the outcome of this decision? Is this potential change influencing me?
• Have I gathered the types of evidence that would help, or just what was easy? Have all possibilities been considered? Have all perspectives been represented?
• Is the evidence sound or just based on anecdote and sentiment?

Once a bias has been brought to light, it is much easier to deal with and proceed with a higher level of consciousness. Such reflection is sure to bring us closer to better decision making.


Greenberg, J., & Baron, R. A. (2008). Behavior in organizations (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Lovallo, D., & Sibony, O. (2010). The case for behavioral strategy. McKinsey Quarterly. Accessed 15 Feb. 2015

Robbins, S. P. (2005). Essentials of organisational behavior (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Rykrsmith, E. (2013). 5 biases in decision making – Part 2. The Fast Track Blog. Accessed 15 Feb. 2015

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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