What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias, also referred to as similarity bias, is the unconscious human tendency to gravitate toward other people with similar backgrounds, interests, and beliefs. While we may think that we actively make conscious choices to surround ourselves with people based on their character, the reality is that we aren’t very good at being objective when choosing who we like and want to be around. More often than not, people tend to gravitate towards others simply because they remind them of themselves.

What causes affinity bias?

There are several reasons why we might gravitate toward people like us.

First, being around others like ourselves is affirming. We’re more likely to hear our opinions and thoughts echoed and upheld, giving us a sense of validation.

Similarly, affinity bias allows us to avoid confrontation with other, different points of view that we may find challenging to accept.

It’s also helpful to realize that affinity bias is essentially a shortcut, allowing our brains to save valuable energy by skipping real critical thinking and simply associating “similar to me” with “good” and “worth including in my life.”

Effects of affinity bias

Unfortunately, sometimes shortcuts get us lost, and affinity bias comes with its fair share of negative impacts. By unconsciously gravitating toward people similar to us, we miss out on the opportunity to get to know many fascinating, worthwhile people. 

We end up reinforcing our opinions and cultural beliefs repeatedly. The lack of difference or challenge can lead to an inability to see past our own worldview, making us less empathetic and understanding and sometimes even leading to a fear of others who are “different” from us.

Affinity bias in hiring

One of the places where affinity bias is most insidious and harmful is in hiring. After all, recruiters, hiring managers, and HR leaders are not immune to unconscious bias. 

So while hiring teams may think they’re objectively choosing the best candidates, they may be picking people who look and think like them and come from similar backgrounds without even realizing it. This risks creating a homogenous workplace at best and a non-inclusive, discriminatory workplace at worst.

What are some examples of affinity bias?

There are many ways in which affinity bias can sneakily show up in your thinking. For example, you might assume that a person is well-educated because they went to the same university as you or that somebody is qualified for a role because they previously worked at the same company you did. 

This type of thinking can affect an organization in multiple ways. Some examples of affinity bias in the workplace include:

  • Hiring candidates who are not the most qualified for a given role
  • Passing over deserving people for promotions
  • Leaders dismissing new, different ideas
  • Overlooking people for praise and rewards

Ultimately, affinity bias can harm your organization’s people, your company culture, and your productivity.

What’s the connection between affinity bias and diversity and inclusion?

One important thing to consider is how affinity bias can affect your organization’s DEI&B. Because when recruiters and leaders are always hiring, promoting, and nurturing people similar to themselves, it creates a workforce full of people of the same backgrounds, destroying diversity. This unconscious bias is one of the barriers to inclusivity that keeps people of minority identities from equal representation in the workforce on all levels.

What can you do to avoid affinity bias?

Because it can be so harmful, HR leaders must be aware of and actively work toward preventing and reversing affinity bias. There are several ways to do this:

  • Speak openly about affinity bias, so people can more easily identify it at work
  • Involve multiple people of different backgrounds in hiring and promotion decisions
  • Introduce anonymity and randomization to the recruitment process
  • Hold unconscious bias training for everyone, including C-levels, HR, managers, and team members

Why should modern HR teams be aware of affinity bias?

We can’t control the unconscious biases we naturally hold as human beings. But when they can negatively impact our organization’s culture, inclusivity, and success, it becomes our duty to learn how to mitigate affinity bias. Taking active steps toward dismantling our own internal biases will ultimately make for better, more strategic decision-making and a more equitable workplace.