Workplace Investigations: A Lesson from Psychics and Ghost Hunters (Part One)

By Michelle Bird

No matter how fair-minded an investigator may be, the inescapable reality is that we all have inherent biases. The situations we investigate are viewed through our own lens, and sometimes our past experiences and our perceptions can interfere with a fair and neutral information gathering process unless steps are taken to mitigate the risk. The important first step is to be aware of the different kinds of bias, and how they can operate to influence our decision making.

1. Confirmation Bias
This is the type of bias most people are familiar with. Confirmation bias occurs when a person searches for, interprets, and recalls information in a way that substantiates their pre-existing beliefs. It’s the kind of bias that is at play when psychics and tarot-card readers do a “cold reading”. If the subject already believes that the psychic can tell the future, they are likely to remember the statements that are true, forget the statements that are false, and interpret ambiguous comments in a favorable manner. Similarly, if you have ever watched a reality show featuring ghost-hunters, you might have seen confirmation bias in action. Every creaky noise becomes a footstep and every slight breeze a ghostly apparition when the person involved is already convinced the house they are exploring is haunted.

While confirmation bias may not be particularly harmful in the scenarios noted above, it can be extremely detrimental in a workplace investigation. If an investigator makes up their mind at an early stage that, for example, the complainant is lying, confirmation bias can cause them to actively seek out documents and witness that support this position, while failing to search for evidence to the contrary. It can even cause an investigator to over-rely on evidence that backs up their belief and forget hearing anything that contradicts it.

While it is natural to try to make sense of the information being gathered while an investigation is ongoing, it is crucial that investigators keep an open mind until the final report has been written. To keep confirmation bias in check, ask yourself:

  • What assumptions am I making, and what are they based on?
  • Am I asking the right questions during interviews, and am I making good use of open-ended questions?
  • Is there any important information or witnesses I might have missed?

2. Primacy effect
A type of bias that is related to confirmation bias is the preference for early information, also known as the “primacy effect”. Studies1 have shown that people have an innate preference for information they hear first. For example, people form a more positive impression of someone described as “intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious”, than if the order of adjectives is reversed. Having heard the positive traits first, the listener forms a hypothesis of what this individual is like, and gives less weight to the negative traits that come after.

In a workplace investigation, one version of the facts is always going to be presented first. Usually, this version comes from the complainant. An investigator must work to avoid jumping to conclusions based on this first telling of the events, and to keep an open mind to the respondent’s version as well. To avoid the primacy effect, consider:

  • When did you come up with a theory of the case? Was it too early to do so, and how willing are you to waiver from that theory?
  • If you had to support the opposite conclusion to the one that you have reached, what evidence would you use?

3. Defensive attribution bias
If you have ever read an online news article about a person suffering a misfortune, and instantly dozens of commenters chime in that it was the victim’s own fault (“He wouldn’t have gotten mugged if he didn’t walk in a bad neighbourhood at night! I would never do that!”), you have seen defensive attribution in action. Psychologists theorize that people do this in order to convince themselves that they are in control of the world around them, and to minimize fear that they will become a victim of a similar event.

Studies show that defensive attribution bias operates more strongly when we are considering the actions of a person who we see as dissimilar to ourselves[2]. Defense attorneys have argued that this type of bias can be seen in trials involving black defendants and all-white or mostly-white juries, causing jurors to have less sympathy for the accused and accordingly be less likely to consider mitigating factors in sentencing3. Conversely, studies have shown that male jurors are less likely to sympathize with female sexual assault victims, and are more likely to place blame on the victim rather than on the perpetrator4.

When it comes to workplace investigations, an investigator is going to encounter complainants who are alleging that they have been victims of harassment and bullying. In many cases one of the parties will have more in common with the investigator than the other, whether it be gender, race or religion. When we are evaluating the truthfulness of what an individual is saying, and the impact that bullying or harassment might have had on a complainant, it is important to consider whether the defensive attribution bias is coming in to play. To see whether you are being impacted by defensive attribution bias, be honest with yourself about the following:

  • What was your impression of each of the parties within the first few minutes of the interview? What was that impression based on?
  • Do you find it particularly hard to believe the account of one of the parties and if so, why?

4. Courtesy bias
Courtesy bias is the tendency for people to respond in a way that is in keeping with what they think someone wants to hear. This type of bias often comes up in market research situations. For example, someone participating in a focus group might say they like a new soft drink, when in fact they don’t, because they do not want to seem impolite. It can impede the ability for the researcher to get honest and useful feedback.

Although investigations are very different from market research, investigators can also suffer from being too polite, or too eager to please their client. In most cases a workplace investigator is hired by an employer, and that employer might have their own ideas about the guilt or innocence of the respondent. Unfortunately, the result of some workplace investigations is a termination, and when the job of a valued employee is on the line a client might be a bit too eager to share their preference regarding the outcome of an investigation.

Another difficulty arises when the information gathered may appear to reflect poorly not only on the respondent, but on the workplace as a whole. An investigator might have to tell an employer that one of their employees has been harassed, and also that their own deficient policies and workplace culture contributed to the harassment.

Investigative findings can never be tailored to the preferences of the client, and an important part of an investigator’s job is to tell their client the hard truths. Accordingly, it is vital for an investigator to be aware of the potential impact of courtesy bias in cases where they know a client may not be happy with the outcome of an investigation. Protect your investigations from courtesy bias by doing the following:

  • From the first contact with the client, be clear and open about your role as a neutral, objective investigator.
  • Consider what information you would need to address the problem if you were in the client’s shoes, and be honest with yourself about whether you have provided all that information.

Read Part Two now.

Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.


1. Asch, S. E. (1946) Forming impressions of personality, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258-290
2. Griffitt, W., & Jackson, T. (1973). Simulated jury decisions: The influence of jury-defendant attitude similarity-dissimilarity. Social Behavior and Personality, 1, 1–7.
3. Bowers WJ, Steiner BD, Sandys M. “Death Sentencing in Black and White: An Empirical Analysis of Jurors’ Race and Jury Racial Composition,”, University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law , 2001, vol. 3 (pg. 171-275)
4. Deitz, S. R., Blackwell, K. T., Daley, P. C., & Bentley, B. J. (1982). Measurement of empathy toward rape victims and rapists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(2), 372-384.

This article was originally posted on rubinthomlinson.com.

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