Affinity Bias

This article explains “affinity bias,” the psychological phenomenon where we have intuitive trust and fondness for people who appear to be like us.


Synonymous with “empathy for” or “rapport with,” the word affinity has Latin origins. It began with the roots “ad” and “finis”– to+border–which turned into “related,” and transformed to the Middle English and French meanings connected to relationships by marriage.

The word conjures up images of having a liking of something or someone–“He has an affinity for modern art…”–or agreeing with something, which is even mirrored by its use in Biochemiatry (“the degree to which a substance tends to combine with another”). And the agreeableness aspect of the word extends to the relationship between things–plants, animals, even languages–that is, that things have a resemblance, some type of structure with shared characteristics.

Affinity denotes similarity, kinship, that things are somehow alike, analogous, or correspondent. And, remember, our brains really like patterns, similarity, & the status quo.

What is affinity bias?

Affinity bias is a tendency to warm up to people like ourselves. How this plays out in an organizational context: when you select somebody to work in your organization, you tend to prefer someone like yourself.

How this typically plays out: a founder selects team members similar to her or him, who in turn select people who are similar to them, and so on, perhaps ultimately impacting the organization’s diversity.

Corporate hiring practices are meant to find people who are a “good fit” for the organization, aka: people who will bring value to the team. That causes managers to look for candidates who are professionally-skilled, but will also get along well with their co-workers.

To mitigate affinity bias in the hiring process, many organizations have diverse interviews so that candidates can engage in different ways and so that hiring managers gain diffferent perspectives before making a final decision.

We all have a natural propensity to want to be around people we can relate to and, if we are honest, it’s difficult to contemplate being around those who cause us discomfort.

If affinity bias means being biased towards “people who make me comfortable” or “people who are like me,” it makes sense that the opposite is true: that we would have an aversion to those who we feel uncomfortable around. Often, that means “people who are not like me.”

This can impact the diversity of any organization.

But, then, we’re left to consider:

  • the psychological underpinnings causing that discomfort;
  • the subjectivity of “like me”; even
  • how to re-frame others, even if they may be different, so that a level of comfort can be achieved.

I have ideas about that last one.