Affinity Bias: What It Is and How to Combat It

Have you ever been in a room full of strangers and immediately gravitated to the person who looked like they have the most in common with you? You probably didn’t realize it, but in that moment, you likely acted on what is known as affinity bias.

Affinity bias is the tendency to favor someone because they’re similar to us. It’s a type of cognitive bias that can lead us to make all sorts of judgments and decisions that aren’t necessarily rational. We’re all susceptible to this bias, whether we realize it or not.

Affinity bias can be helpful in some situations. But it can also lead us astray— especially in the workplace. 

What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias is the tendency to prefer people who are similar to us. Under the influence of affinity bias, we are more likely to trust and cooperate with people who share our values, beliefs, and background. This bias can lead us to surround ourselves only with people who think like us, which can limit our ability to see other points of view.

Affinity bias definition: Affinity bias is a type of unconscious bias that leads people to seek out or gravitate to others who are like them.

Early on in human history, this natural inclination was evolutionarily advantageous. According to researcher Jeffrey Davis, affinity bias, at one time, allowed us to “disperse, fragment, and form complex social networks and diverse cultural belief systems.” Today, however, unconscious biases can negatively impact our behavior and decisions.

Why is it important to recognize affinity bias?

There are numerous reasons why it is worth it to learn to identify and make a conscious effort to correct.

First and foremost, recognizing affinity bias is a step towards inclusion. Whether it’s at work, home, or play, knowing how unconscious biases affect our behavior and decision-making can help us be mindful of how we treat those around us. 

But beyond that, here are a few reasons to check your affinity bias.

1. Affinity bias can lead to bad decisions.

If we only like or trust people who are like us, we may fail to consider all options— which can ultimately lead to bad decisions.

Numerous studies support the importance of diversity. According to a McKinsey & Company study, businesses in the top quartile for gender diversity are 25% more likely to outperform their peers. Furthermore, businesses in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to outperform peers.

2. It can cause us to miss out on new experiences.

Surrounding ourselves with different beliefs and backgrounds can give us new and exciting experiences. 

3. It can create division and conflict.

Placing our trust and cooperation only with those who are like us leads to exclusion and discrimination. It can also cause your peers to feel undervalued and not respected. These feelings can build to cause division and conflict within a team or organization. 

4. It can curb creativity.

According to research studies, familiar ground isn’t the best place for cultivating creativity. Exposing ourselves to different cultures and ways of thinking alters our own thoughts and ideas, boosting creativity and innovative problem solving.

5. It can limit our ability to empathize with others.

If we only like or trust people who are like us, we may have a hard time empathizing with people who have different experiences.

Tips to avoid affinity bias at work

Affinity bias is often discussed in hiring, but it can happen at any level of an organization at any time. 

It happens to everyone, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. The fact that you’re seeking out information on how to address it shows that you’re taking steps in the right direction!

how to avoid affinity bias

1. Ask yourself the hard questions. 

When you find yourself gravitating towards someone at work, stop and ask yourself why. Is it because they share your interests or characteristics? And it’s not just about who you hang out with— it can also affect the decisions you make at work. Are you only considering the ideas of those who already think like you? If you’re getting input from colleagues, ask yourself whose opinions you are placing more value on and why.

2. Listen.

Really listen to what other people are saying, even if you disagree with them. Not only will this help you to understand their point of view, but it will also show them that you respect them as an individual. Don’t automatically dismiss what they have to say because you perceive them as different.

3. Seek out diversity and different opinions.

Make a conscious effort to seek out people who have different opinions to you. This will help you to broaden your own perspective and avoid falling into the trap of only ever agreeing with people who think like you do.

4. Find common ground with everyone.

Even if you don’t agree with someone, there’s bound to be something that you have in common. Focusing on this common ground will help you to connect with the other person and see them as a human being, rather than just an extension of their beliefs.

5. Encourage feedback. 

Feedback can be a great way to get insights on blind spots you may have. Whether you’re seeking feedback from your managers, colleagues, or those you manage, peer reviews can be a helpful tool to learn how your actions and decisions may be impacting others. It’s also a good time to give others feedback on how their unconscious biases may be affecting you.

Expert words of advice

“Affinity bias is prevalent in many workplaces and is a large driver of unequal outcomes in hiring, developing, and promoting diverse employees.

One way to avoid affinity bias creeping into professional development opportunities is for people managers to record opportunities they give to their team members and review the record periodically to ensure that everyone receives similar opportunities, regardless of their affinity.

Another way to avoid affinity bias in internal relationship building is to ensure department leaders invite everyone to social events and, more importantly, are mindful that opportunities to socialize outside of the workplace are inclusive in terms of activity and timing.

Lastly, leaders can steer clear of affinity bias in performance reviews by reflecting on their potential biases before conducting the review process to ensure that they don’t evaluate direct reports who are similar to themselves less harshly than they evaluate direct reports who are less similar.”

—Kelli Mason, JobSage Advisor and HR Expert

The bottom line

Affinity bias may be holding you back from creativity, new experiences, and better decisions. The next time you’re making a decision, ask yourself if you’re considering all the relevant information, or if you’re just going with your gut because the person reminds you of yourself.

You might be surprised what you gain from seeking out the company and opinions of others!