Substitution Bias: How to Make Sure You Don’t Miss the Details
4 min read

Substitution Bias: How to Make Sure You Don’t Miss the Details

Substitution Bias: How to Make Sure You Don’t Miss the Details

Have you ever noticed that the best candidate doesn’t always get the job? Although sharp skills and a good resume are important, it seems that charisma and selling yourself is what gets the job these days.

Things have always been this way in fact. What we are observing is a subtle form of substitution bias. Substitution bias is when we answer a simple substitute question in order to form a very similar answer for a more complex question.

In the case of getting a job, the complex question an interviewer will ask themselves is: “Is this candidate the best one for the job?” That’s a pretty complicated question with many variables. Subconsciously, the person will simplify this in their mind by answering a simpler question “do I like this person?”

That’s why focusing on charisma, confidence, and selling yourself seems to work so well in interviews, far more than the actual development of skillset. You’re answering the real question the interviewer has in mind subconsciously.


Examples of substitution bias

Substitution bias can be observed at any time when a question that does not have an extremely obvious and direct answer is asked. Your brain isn’t going to use substitution bias for “1 + 2.” But it will for the more complex questions in the following example situations.

Stereotypes with people

The stereotypes we apply to people according to their appearance are a form of substitution bias. For example, you see a man walk into a coffee shop dressed in a sharp suit and tie. Most people will automatically think the man is very successful and that he is a good and friendly person.

But those are just psychological substitutions; people saw the suit and figured that because he dressed well, he must also have positive personal traits. None of those is necessarily true. He could be not successful at all or just a complete crook. It’s the whole basis for one of my favourite movies, Catch Me If You Can.

Trust and fairness

We tend to trust authority figures by default. For example, if your boss teaches you something on the job, you assume it’s the best way to do it. That’s substitution bias. Your boss may be more experienced than you, but that does not necessarily mean he’s the best expert on the subject. There could be better information out there on the internet or from other people.

The same thing goes for general advice. People often take life advice from their parents blindly. Of course, parents definitely have our best interests in mind, but that does not necessarily mean their career or relationship advice will be 100% correct 100% of the time.

Buying travel insurance

In his best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow, author and renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman give an example of substitution bias with how people buy travel insurance.

A group of American subjects was offered travel insurance against their own death. The group was split into two according to two different insurance options. The first group was offered a package that covered damages in the case of a terrorist attack while travelling in Europe. The second group was offered a general package that covers all damages.

The result was that the first group was willing to pay far more for their package (terrorist attacks only) than the second group (general damage). Kahneman suggested that these people substituted the attribute of fear for their calculations of the total risk. In this case, their fear of terrorism far outweighed their general fear of travelling. As a result, they were willing to pay more for that first package.


Overcoming substitution bias

Now that we understand substitution bias, we’re in a position to overcome it. Once you do, you’ll be able to pick out all the details of a situation and make more rational decisions.

Don’t make assumptions

Substitution bias can be thought of as making emotional assumptions. You see the guy in the suit and assume that he’s good and successful. And therein lies the problem: the assumption.

You should never try to connect the dots between two categories that are not directly related. A good suit means that the person has a good suit. That’s it. Try not to make such extensive assumptions as they will usually be incorrect.

Trust but verify

When taking advice or learning from anyone, always follow the rule of trust but verify. The advice may very well be good and well-intentioned, but you should always verify it yourself so you know for sure.

Assuming your boss isn’t a bad person, his or her career advice is probably going to be helpful. Your parents are always going to try and give you sound life advice. But verify it yourself through careful observation and your own research and experimentation. It’s the only way to know for sure that the advice is good and correct. Otherwise, you’re putting your faith in something that you only assume will be right.

Look at the actual data

If you are dealing with a case like the one of travel insurance where there are actual numbers and perhaps money involved, you should be looking at the actual data.

The people in the study relied on their emotions, namely fear. They saw the word “terrorist” and got scared, so they ended up paying more. What they should have done instead was calculated the probability of the need to use the various insurance options and then chosen their pricing based on that.

The numbers never lie. Find a way to bring data and calculations into your decisions. That way, you will have better evidence to support your decision and a lot more confidence when you make it.


This article is part of a mini-series on cognitive biases. Stay tuned for more! Check out the others so far here:

Confirmation Bias: How to Be More Open to New Ideas
Availability Bias: Don’t Let Your Surroundings Affect Your Decisions
Framing Bias: How to Make Better Decisions
Anchoring Bias: How to Avoid Getting Ripped off on Salary
Loss Aversion: How to Take Calculated Risks
Hindsight Bias: How to Be Smart About Reviewing Your Past Decisions

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman