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The Outcome Bias: 3 Tips to Avoid It

The outcome bias is a tendency to judge people based on outcomes (rather than their intentions).

What’s wrong with that? After all, results do matter.

But if we ignore people’s intentions, it undermines the ability to make fair decisions—especially to encourage ethical behavior and discourage unethical behavior.

So when is the outcome bias really a problem? What can you do to avoid it? Fortunately, recent research provides us with 3 useful tips.

When is the outcome bias a problem?

Sometimes, people with good intentions succeed. Sometimes, people with bad intentions fail.

But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t always the case. Just imagine what happens when:

  • A person has good intentions that lead to an unfavorable outcome
  • A person has bad intentions that lead to a favorable outcome

If we’re only paying attention to results, we can end up punishing good intentions and rewarding bad ones. That’s probably not what we want to do.

Tip #1: Evaluate people individually

Part of the problem with the outcome bias is attention.

Attention is a limited resource, and people have a tendency to focus their attention on results.

The outcome bias becomes stronger when people evaluate more than one person at the same time, especially when they’re comparing people. In other words, when there are more outcomes to think about at once, you have less attention left to consider people’s true intentions.

When you evaluate people individually, you’re more likely to notice and properly consider their intentions.

Tip #2: Look at intentions first

What if you can’t evaluate people individually?

Many evaluations are specifically meant to compare people (and often to make decisions about them as a result). In these cases, tip #1 isn’t going to work.

You can overcome the outcome bias by thinking about people’s intentions first, then thinking about the outcomes.

This process avoids dividing attention between intentions and outcomes. And it makes intuitive sense to most people. The relevant intentions should happen before the outcome—why not think about the process in the same order it happened?

Tip #3: Don’t expect 3rd parties to avoid the bias

Why are people so fixated on outcomes?

Perhaps part of the reason is that we are often invested in those outcomes. When the outcome directly affects you in some way, it’s hard not to get fixated on it.

So you might assume that a disinterested 3rd party (someone not affected by the outcomes) would be less fixated. Their recommendations should be less biased. But that’s not the case.

3rd party recommendations have the same outcome bias.

Regardless of personal investment, people tend to get fixated on outcomes and overlook other people’s intentions.

Dividing attention by evaluating or comparing multiple people increases the bias, and thinking about intentions before considering outcomes helps overcome the bias.

To recap

You can avoid outcome bias with the following tips.

  • Tip #1: Evaluate people individually, if possible.
  • Tip #2: Think about people’s intentions first, then think about outcomes.
  • Tip #3: Disinterested 3rd parties show the same bias. (Tip #1 and Tip #2 are just as important and useful for anyone.)

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