Everyday Life

Biases in your career choice

From choosing your classes in high school, to doing an internship or choosing your degree and college and eventually choosing your job, the career choice process takes time and reflection. As with any decision-making process, we must acknowledge that there are several cognitive biases surrounding it. But is there really a personal decision more important than choosing your career path? When it comes to choosing what you will be doing for the majority of your life, the environment you will be in, and the people you will surround yourself with, you surely do not want your judgement to be clouded and your decision to eventually be regretted. The first step towards a clearer and more objective mindset is to know and acknowledge the biases that might influence your choice.

The first and more obvious of the mental traps about career decision-making is the availability bias, a distortion that arises from the use of information that is most readily available, rather than that which is necessarily most representative. In other words, it describes the tendency to rely disproportionately upon the most readily available data. During the career choice process, the ideas, opportunities and options you will consider will be heavily influenced by the people you know. In fact, we tend to only select career paths that we have been exposed to, through our friends and relatives for example.  The careers we contemplate are limited because the people around us are not representative of the whole population, therefore we tend to not consider other careers because the information about it is not directly available to us.

The second bias is manifested when seeking information on a specific career path. It is often advised to talk to workers of a certain field about their experience to make a more informed decision. It certainly is good advice, but we must keep in mind that the selection bias applies here. This bias is defined as a tendency to treat a non-representative sample as if it represented a whole statistical population. If you ask a crowd of ten lawyers if they like their job, what the advantages and disadvantages are, and if they would recommend you follow that path, you are only talking to people that made it. Again, the sample of lawyers is not representative of all the people that once wanted to be lawyers too, just like you, but either got discouraged, disappointed or they failed. Their opinions on the field should matter to you too and would give you a more objective view on the actual career outcome.

There are other choice challenges that come from the influence of a group. Have you ever realized a large portion of your friends were going off to study the same thing, say business administration? That made you consider the field, didn’t it? This is an example of herd mentality. You might have not ended making the same choice as them, but it did bring your attention to this career path. It can also be applied to smaller, seemingly less significant decisions like joining a certain student association.

Another cognitive process is the anchoring bias: a phenomenon where an irrelevant reference point influences our decision making simply because it is the first piece of information received. For example, if your parents have always told you medicine is a great, fulfilling and high-paying field or that you would definitely succeed if you were to pursue that career, you are likely to believe it (or have believed it at some point in your career choice process), meaning you will possibly have researched it more than other options.

Other biases are results of your internal judgement or reflections of your personality. Confirmation bias, a tendency to seek confirmation of the hypotheses you already believe in and ignoring other possible options, will lead you to focus on careers that conform to your beliefs. It might lead you to ignore disadvantages of a career or field because you have already established that you would pursue that path, or on the contrary, it might close you off to certain opportunities.

After having made some decisions relating to your career path, you might come to realize you are not satisfied with your career. This is fairly common: 19.8% of workers currently employed in the EU express low satisfaction when it comes to their jobs, while in the US nearly 47% of workers wish they had decided on a different career path. You may think you are not exactly in the place you wish you were, that your preferences have changed or that your expectations were not met. You might then be subject to the status quo bias or the sunk cost fallacy. The former is an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, leading people to prefer things to be the same, therefore doing nothing or sticking with a decision made previously. The latter is instead the tendency to assign more weight to options into which we have already invested time, effort and money. Both will prevent you from objectively evaluating your alternatives for the future and from eventually re-adjusting or drastically changing your career path if needed.

Source: Eurostat.

Lastly, some cognitive mechanisms will freeze your decisions. The regret aversion bias is common with important decision-making like the career choice process, and it is described as a tendency to refuse to make any decision because of the fear that it will turn out to be the wrong one or that it will later lead to feelings of regret. Decision paralysis, on the other hand, is an inability to choose between options that are overwhelmingly difficult to compare, possibly causing us to decide not to decide. An example could be not knowing which job you want to do after graduating from your bachelor’s degree therefore starting a master’s instead solely because you cannot decide, pushing the decision time to later and keeping your options open. Both mechanisms will lead you to make emotional rather than rational decisions.

Another important cognitive mechanism to acknowledge is gender bias. Although we have evolved from traditional conceptions of gender roles and how they impact our careers, we can still observe some signs of a persistent gender bias. Fewer women are opting for high-earning and/or high prestige jobs. Examples include the proportion of women in Investment Banking: one of the highest paying graduate entry level jobs only has 22% of its US work force identifying as women. Similarly, only 28% of professors in higher education in the UK are women. While we have managed to diminish or in some cases eliminate the effect of gender bias, we must acknowledge that a lack of representation and pre-conceptions about gender roles still affect some part of our judgement. In fact, estimating the probability of succeeding is an important factor in career choices, and we have higher estimates for it when we are similar to successful individuals in this field.

Now that you know more about the processes clouding your judgement, what can you do? The main solution, as in many cases, is to inform yourself: read, watch, listen, and try to know more about the options available to you. Talk to as many people as possible. That includes talking to people currently doing a job you are interested in, but also people who changed careers and people who are doing a job you would have previously ruled out. Explaining and justifying your thought-process to someone else, a parent or a friend, will help you exteriorize, phrase and frame your decision. Talking will make it easier for you and your interlocutor to spot cognitive biases and flaws in your judgement. Additionally, reframing your view of change and risk can be helpful in overcoming the status quo bias and the sunk cost fallacy. Try to justify staying put instead of justifying not to change your career path. Visualize the bigger picture: steer clear of making decisions that are based only on the present without determining what is best for your future. Lastly, broadening your horizons, consciously being open to different possibilities, and actively trying to disprove your pre-conceptions will help you achieve a more nuanced thinking.

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