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Understanding affinity bias

Last updated

8 October 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

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Hanging out with people of similar backgrounds who hold similar views might seem natural. It’s something many people do from as early as preschool or elementary school.

But when this unconscious tendency, which psychologists call affinity bias or similarity bias, enters the workplace, it creates problems that can impact diversity and unfairness. It can also limit your company’s ability to grow.

Human resource leaders and C-suite executives need to be aware of this unconscious bias to ensure your company is hiring the best candidates, preparing the right people for future leadership, and ensuring a diverse and welcoming workforce.

What is affinity bias?

Social psychologist Tony Greenwald coined the term affinity bias during his research into implicit biases in the mid-1990s.

Psychologists define affinity bias as unconsciously holding a preference for individuals who are similar to yourself. Factors that influence affinity bias include socioeconomic background, education, race, gender, and age. People also develop an affinity bias toward those who hold the same values, beliefs, or opinions.

Affinity bias guides people as they develop personal relationships because they are drawn to people who share their interests, support their opinions, and affirm their emotional responses to life situations. In these ways, affinity bias carries positive connotations for many. However, in a workplace where diversity is valued and part of the culture, affinity bias may work against the organization’s best interests.

Unconscious bias and affinity bias

Affinity bias is one form of unconscious bias. This term covers a spectrum of positive and negative biases in a person’s mind. Unconscious biases drive your behaviors, attitudes, and, ultimately, your decision-making in many situations.

Is affinity bias a cognitive bias?

The brain creates a cognitive bias as it processes information and filters it past your experiences.

Affinity bias is a perfect example of a cognitive bias. It provides preference to some over others based on past experiences that match your behaviors, attitudes, and characteristics.

What causes affinity bias?

Like all biases, affinity bias is a learned behavior, even though it operates under your consciousness. People learn affinity bias through their interactions with others, including their parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, and coworkers.

Also, because the brain is bombarded by millions of stimuli, people are only able to process so much information at a time. The brain develops shortcuts to forming judgments while processing this limited information. When you first meet a person, your brain will generate an initial opinion based purely on appearance before the person has even spoken. Race, height, weight, hair color, dress, and cleanliness are just some of the characteristics that factor into the first impression that pops into your head.

Those opinions will change or be affirmed as you get to know the person better. Still, unconscious biases will guide the formation of those opinions—especially affinity bias. Other biases will also influence affinity bias.

Confirmation bias

Your brain will look for ways to confirm any early opinions you form about a person or situation. Confirmation bias can lead you to ignore information about a person that could change your opinion—for better or for worse. For example, you might assume a person who doesn’t dress well cannot be intelligent, so your mind will look for confirmation of a lack of intelligence in someone who is poorly dressed.

Familiarity bias

People process information in ways that are most familiar to them. Familiarity bias makes you more comfortable with people and ideas that feel familiar to your previous experiences.

The halo effect

A dangerous bias that can creep into your assessment of others is the halo effect.

Under the halo effect, your first judgment of a character can influence how you perceive other aspects of the person. For example, if you perceive a person to be attractive at first glance, you might also think they are intelligent or trustworthy.

In business, the halo effect can cloud your judgment when you assume that because a person is really good at doing XYZ, they must be great at other things, too. Conversely, if you think they are poor performers at one task, under the halo effect, you’ll assume they are poor at everything else.

The impact of affinity bias

While affinity bias might be useful for building a group of like-minded friends, it has a detrimental effect on organizations and businesses that rely on building a broad base of customers or clients. If company leaders tend to surround themselves with people like themselves, they will build an insular culture that excludes millions of dissimilar people.

Here are some of the ways affinity bias can negatively impact a company:

  1. Reduced diversity and inclusion—from the hiring process forward, affinity bias can limit diversity in an organization and promote a culture of exclusion rather than inclusion. Diverse workers may be less likely to be hired, creating a smaller pool of candidates for promotion or mentorship.

  2. Limited innovation and creativity—innovation and creativity thrive when ideas and opinions are challenged, not just affirmed. A team of similar people is less likely to strive for innovative ideas because they don’t challenge each other’s opinions.

  3. Negative impact on company culture—affinity bias often gets explained away as a way to build a company culture, but it has the opposite effect. A company where some people are considered “in” while others are excluded from participation and advancement creates a toxic culture.

  4. Increased legal and reputational risks—if a company is considered culturally biased in its hiring and promotion practices, it becomes susceptible to legal action from those who are excluded. It may also build a reputation for keeping those “outside” the culture from even applying for jobs. Such a reputation could turn away customers and potential collaborators.

  5. Setting employees up for failure—you might assume that because someone is really good at XYZ, they must also be good at ABC. This assumption isn’t based on proof. Placing an individual in a role they are not prepared for or trained for, just because they have shown positive performance to date, is a recipe for failure.

When is affinity bias useful?

Affinity bias can serve a useful purpose in extremely limited situations.

For example, if a group of cancer survivors wants to develop a nonprofit organization to address issues cancer patients face, they might prefer to staff the agency with cancer survivors.

Similarly, a bicycle shop might want to hire staff who enjoy biking because they want them to be able to share their experience with customers.

Examples of affinity bias in job interviews

Affinity bias is especially risky when it raises its head during job interviews. A hiring director could be influenced by how well they “like” a candidate and overlook flaws in their resume or work history. They might make this assessment because the candidate attended the same university as them or they followed a similar career path.

Other factors such as cultural background, age, and appearance could factor into hiring decisions—particularly if the hiring director doesn’t follow a prescribed interview format or form an objective assessment of each candidate.

Affinity bias and “cultural fit”

Of course, companies want to hire candidates they consider to be a good cultural fit. But, sometimes, this allows affinity bias to sneak in.

Hiring candidates who are generally similar to the interviewer or the team can create a homogeneous culture, damaging the creativity and inspiration that can arise from a diverse workforce. Companies often seek candidates they consider a “cultural add.” In other words, they want candidates who share the same values but can add diversity to the team.

Examples of affinity bias in the workplace

Affinity bias can spread far beyond the hiring process if left unchecked. It can complicate everyday working activities.

Dismissing new ideas

New ideas that could lead a company to thrive might be rejected if they come from the “wrong” people. If managers and executives don’t create an environment where they welcome input from everyone in the company, they might miss out on the next great idea.

Employees feeling undervalued

A one-way ticket to creating a toxic company culture is allowing employees to feel undervalued. Employees who feel they are excluded from advancement or even participation are more likely to quit or create a negative workplace atmosphere.

Affinity bias in a performance review

Affinity bias can creep into performance reviews when the reviewer gives higher marks to an employee with whom they share a common interest or background. For example, if a manager and employee share similar characteristics and have things in common, the manager may give that employee higher marks. 

How to avoid affinity bias

Awareness is the first step to avoiding affinity bias in the hiring and promotion process. Companies and leaders can take the following steps to ensure affinity bias doesn’t develop and become a problem:

  1. Recognize affinity bias in the workplace—make an honest assessment of your hiring processes, promotion decisions, and general workplace practices to ensure there is no affinity bias. If it exists, ensure you can eradicate it. Make sure processes favor objectivity, not subjectivity.

  2. Meet new people—affinity bias creates comfort. Branching out to meet people who might make you feel uncomfortable enables you to learn to recognize your affinity bias.

  3. Anonymise and randomize decisions—you can ensure affinity bias doesn’t creep into the hiring process if you remove the human element from some aspects. Increasing the number of people involved in people decisions can also disperse affinity bias.

  4. Take time to make decisions—taking time to make a full evaluation of each candidate’s qualifications objectively can overcome affinity bias in your initial reaction to the candidate.

  5. Talk to employees—talking to employees can help you recognize affinity bias and can help you learn more about a diverse group of people. This can reduce your likelihood of making biased decisions.

  6. Invest in affinity bias training—training yourself, managers, and executives about affinity bias can make you more aware and provide tools to address any problems it has created.

  7. Analyze your demographics—take a look at your organization’s makeup and make sure it represents diversity. Look at your people processes as a starting point to impact change.

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