Welcome to the CogBlog

January 16th, 2013 No comments

The CogBlog is created and maintained by research assistants working in the Memory and Language Lab and students enrolled in courses in cognitive psychology and memory at Colby College. The CogBlog is a space to think about and discuss recent research findings in cognitive psychology, with an emphasis on how basic research in cognition can help us understand how we navigate through our everyday lives, how we learn and remember, how we speak and listen.

The CogBlog was recently cited as one of the top psychology blogs of 2017.  You can also read an interview with Professor Jen Coane about how the blog was developed and how the content is generated.



Categories: General Tags:

Did fake news really help Trump win the election?

December 3rd, 2019 No comments

As the 2016 election drew closer, headlines such as “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Trump as president” or “WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS…Then 

drops another bombshell”. There was even a scandal insinuating that in Hillary’s leaked email, “pizza” was just a cover up for a possible human trafficking scheme or child sex abuse ring. In actuality, these events never took place, and several reputable news sources, such as the New York Times and Fox News debunked any criminal activity involving “pizza”. So why did so many people believe the headlines? And is there a possibility that this helped Trump win the election?

Memory is a system that is extremely important in our day to day lives. Without it we wouldn’t know where to go for food or water and we would have to learn basic tasks, like how to drive, every day. Memory is made of three processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding allows us to take in information from our environment, for example, sound waves that are produced by our friend talking. Storage is the process of storing the information, in either our short term memory or long term memory. However, before something can enter our short term memory, it is first stored in our sensory memory. Retrieval is how we re access information stored in our long term memory. Take the example of seeing a red light. First, we recognize the light is red when it’s encoded into our sensory memory. Then, we retrieve the memory of the law that we must stop at red lights. Your body begins the automatic process (a process in which requires no cognitive practice as its been performed many times) of stepping on the brake.  Retrieval is how we access information stored in our long term memory. 

While it is widely believed that our memories are perfect, the fact of the matter is that they are far from it. In 2002, Daniel Schacter developed the seven sins of memory. The first three are sins of omission, or forgetting. Transience is just plain old forgetting of information. Over time, we naturally forget information that no longer has a use, such as a childhood friend’s landline number. The second sin of omission is absentmindness, which is a failure to pay attention during the encoding process. This decreases our ability to properly retrieve information. The third and final sin of omission is blocking, in which you know that you have the information but cannot retrieve it. One example is the tip of the tongue state. The other sins of memory are sins of commission in which precious memories are altered due to new information being presented. The first two are the sins of source misattribution in which you believe you had an

idea first but in reality you heard from someone else first. The second sin of commission is persistence in which your mind focuses on certain memories and plays over and over. PTSD is an example of persistence. The two sins of commission that I would like to focus on are suggestibility and bias. 

Suggestibility occurs when other’s suggestions and ideas can influence how memory of an event to fit their suggestions. Can alter old memories or create new, false ones. Hearing about and imagining an event multiple times can create a memory for the event that seem real to us as something we experienced. Bias occurs when current experiences are affected by our memories of past experiences. For example, if you break up with someone you may remember a positive event being more negative than it actually was. Can happen when our impressions of a person change. 

A study done by Brainerd et al. focused on how word connotations affected people’s memory of those words. They found that as the word connotations became more negative, false memories increased and true memories decreased. 

A study done by Porter et al. focused on scenes rather than words. However, they found very similar results. Memory distortion was found to be significantly affected by negative emotions surrounding the scene. In fact, 80% of participants that were in the negative emotion condition falsey remembered a major detail, while only 40% in the neutral and positive misled groups falsely remembered the same one. This shows that while it never took place, less people in the groups that were misleadingly told about the detail remembered it than participants who were never told about it remembered it, just because there was negative emotion surrounding the scene. 

During the election, there were big supporters of trump who wanted to lock up Hillary and there were big supporters of Hillary who believed Trump would be the downfall of our country. There were negative emotions surrounding both candidates almost all the time. It is not surprising that when these fake news stories emerged, it altered peoples’ memories so that they felt more negative about Trump/Hillary. The majority of these news stories put Trump in a positive light, and Hillary in a negative one. Because of this, people started to remember Trump as a person who would make America great again, and Hillary as a person who was crooked and belonged behind bars. 



Brainerd, C. J., & Bookbinder, S. H. (2019). The semantics of emotion in false memory. Emotion, 19(1), 146–159. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/emo0000431


Porter, S., Spencer, L., & Birt, A. R. (2003). Blinded by emotion? Effect of the emotionality of a scene on susceptibility to false memories. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 35(3), 165–175. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/h0087198


McBride, D., Cutting, J., (2016). Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Processes, and Methodology., Sage Publications. 


Silverman, Craig. “Here Are 50 Of The Biggest Fake News Hits On Facebook From 2016.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 30 Dec. 2016, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/top-fake-news-of-2016.


“Emotion Affects Memory’s Reliability.” NSF, www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=117140.


Categories: Memory Tags: ,

It was him! He committed the crime! So I thought….

November 27th, 2019 2 comments

Imagine that you have witnessed a crime where a burglar broke into your neighbor’s home and committed assault on the people present in the home. As the burglar left your neighbor’s house, you catch a quick glimpse of the burglar’s face. You are brought in the following week to choose from a list of suspects who potentially committed the crime. You notice that the suspects are all the same race like the burglar from last week, however, your race differs from the suspects. As you are examining all the suspects in the room, you believe that suspect #3 committed the crime; Suspect #3 is then taken into custody.

No one is safe from the cross-race effect.

You leave the police station thinking that the person you identified was the criminal. Justice has been served to the burglar, and he will pay for his crimes. Without your help, the law enforcement would have never caught the criminal. Well, Surprise! The actual criminal was actually absent from the police station and was never taken in as a suspect. The person responsible for the crime is still out there somewhere roaming the streets as an innocent person (demonstration shown in video). How could this be? Read more…

You’re Actually Not Always Correct. I Know! Hard to Believe Right?

November 26th, 2019 3 comments

Us vs. Them


Think about the last time you immediately doubted someone’s actions or statements, you thought they were only doing it for their own self-interest. Maybe they stated a political opinion that opposes your own beliefs, or they agreed to complete a survey but only to be compensated with money, at least that’s why you think they did it. Let’s say you and a fellow classmate were talking about whether the new $200 million Colby College athletic complex is reasonable. You say no! The college could spend that money on so many other more beneficial things. However, your classmate says they are all for the new athletic center. You know they’re part of an athletic team so you think to yourself, “Yeah you’re in favor of it because you’re on a team and it would benefit you.” But did you actually take time to think about that person’s reasoning or did you just assume that they were biased and believe that you were the one being objective in the situation? We all may not be aware of it, but we usually expect others to have more personal bias and believe that we are able to judge situations objectively even though that may not be the case, and this is called naïve cynicism. Although this bias may seem really similar to naïve realism, they have some differences. The cognitive bias of naïve realism is the belief that a person can view the world objectively, and so can all the other people who agree with them and are “reasonable”, in their opinion. Instead, everyone else can’t help being subjective because they are all biased.

Naïve cynicism is a cognitive bias that helps explain why humans usually notice other people’s errors more easily than we notice them in ourselves. The term was first coined by Kruger and Gilovich (1999), the first researchers to study this phenomenon experimentally. They performed various studies that all aimed at examining how individuals have cynical expectations regarding how others take responsibility. In one of the studies, pairs of 2 participants played a video game together and then assessed how responsibility for the game outcome was divided between them. They reported their own responsibility for different elements of the game and also how they predicted the other player would divide it. The participants tended to believe that their teammate would take more accountability for elements of the game that contributed to winning over unwanted outcomes of the games such as “missed shots” or “lives lost”. It turns out that people expect others to take more responsibility for themselves in a selfish way, even though that may not be the reality (Kruger & Gilovich, 1999). This expectation that others will egotistically make judgments is a result of naïve cynicism. But, cognitively, how is this phenomenon explained?

Read more…

You Should Be Paying Attention(al) to this Bias 

November 26th, 2019 2 comments

Putting all of your attentional resources towards studying!

You rush into a library late on a rainy night, toting all your calculus notes with you. In just a few days, you have the biggest exam of the semester, and you know you have to do well to keep up your grades. As you walk in, you are greeted by an extensive number of stimuli, the warmth of the library, the smell of coffee floating through the air, the sound of pages rustling. You head to your favorite spot in the cubicle section of the library, pull your books out of your backpack, and get ready to start studying for your exam. Before you do though, you take a quick look at the people around you. You notice a person in a bright red rain jacket about 20 feet away from you, sitting on a chair reading a book. You also notice a group of students huddled around a table, and a man in a suit typing away on his laptop. But that’s enough of observing people, you are here to work on calculus! You really immerse yourself in the math, reading your textbook, reviewing notes, and solving problems in your notebook. You check the clock on the wall every once in a while and after a solid hour and a half of intense studying, you decide to take a break. You feel proud of what you’ve accomplished and decide to go to the next door cafe to get yourself a treat. As you stand up you scan the environment around you – to your surprise, you don’t see the group of students, the businessman, or the woman in the bright red raincoat. Instead there are new people around you that you don’t recognize – How did this happen? You weren’t asleep and you didn’t leave your spot in the library, yet you didn’t notice people leave or enter the space. This is an example of attentional bias, which causes people to pay attention to certain things while ignoring other stimuli. In this example, your attention was directed to the task at hand – so much so that attention was not paid to your surroundings.

Now, imagine you are in a classroom where a professor is going through a lecture with slides. You start to zone out, thinking about something completely unrelated to the class, while staring at the floor. You snap back to reality, look at the slides, and don’t recognize what your professor is talking about. Despite being in the closed classroom without distractions, you can’t remember what your professor was talking about, or what the past couple slides covered. This once again is attentional bias allowing you to ignore certain stimuli in your environment.

Read more…

Rhymes and Reasons, why Poetry is Treason

November 26th, 2019 1 comment

Tale as old as time, why we believe rhymes. Does the truth reside or it is a lie? From childhood to adulthood,

Apples are good for you, but that doesn’t mean that you can avoid going to the doctor altogether!

we are surrounded by rhymes of all kinds. First, they were nursery rhymes and now they take the forms of aphorisms and commercial slogans. Though we might not realize it, these rhymes have the ability to affect how we perceive the world. Given the choice between “woes unite foes” or “woes unite enemies,” people generally think the former is more accurate although the two phrases have similar meanings (McGlone & Tofighbakhsh, 2000). Why is that? The answer lies in a phenomenon called the Rhyme as Reason Effect, which means that we are more likely to believe something to be true if it rhymes. Think about it, how many times have you been told “i before e except after c” or “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and thought that they were sound advice? Though these phrases are not necessarily correct, they are often repeated and believed to be true.


So how does the Rhyme as Reason Effect work and what makes rhyming so persuasive anyway? Well heuristics, mental shortcuts that can help us make quick decisions and judgments, plays a big role. When this phenomenon was first studied, McGlone and Tofighbakhsh found that participants perceived aphorisms that rhymed to be more accurate than the modified non-rhyming version (“Life is mostly strife” over “Life is mostly struggle”), which demonstrates that there is bias for the rhyming aesthetic in a sentence. They also found that rhymes enhanced the fluency of statement which increased the perception of truth. Fluency is how easily something is processed; this heuristic can explain the effect because the faster and smoother something is processed, the more likely it is for us to think highly of it whether the item was logical or not. Because heuristics makes it easy for us to go for the simple answer without second-guessing our decision, we fall victim to the effect without even realizing it.

Not only are rhyming aphorisms easily processed and memorable, but they are also often repeated and passed down from generation to generation (e.g. “birds of a feather flock together”). In order to understand this a little bit more, we can refer to the cognitive processes of memory to explain why familiarity and repetition are so important. Familiarity is an automatic process that occurs when we experience something repeatedly, so when we hear rhyming aphorisms, we also unconsciously believe the statement to be true because it is familiar to us (Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992). Thus, repeated exposure with these statements increases familiarity and make that information more salient, or accessible in our minds. Furthermore, if something is repeated enough time, it is more likely to be seen as a true statement; this is also called the illusory truth effect.

It is even harder for us to realize when we are under the Rhyme as Reason Effect because we grew up listening and reading nursery rhymes. We are experts at detecting rhymes with all that practice! Now how exactly does “The Cat the Hat” affect our perceptions and how we learn, you may wonder. Well, as we read more rhymes, we begin to develop more associations between what words rhyme, which develop our expectations for phrases that rhyme. A study by Sheingold and Foundas found that children were able to put the story in order better if it rhymed because the rhyming words provided cues that helped with the retrieval (to access memory for what was read) process.

Because we are constantly exposed to rhymes growing up, familiarity with words and phrases that rhymes also increase, and the recognition of a phrase that rhyme is automatic. This makes us more vulnerable to catchy catchphrase and commercials that uses rhymes to their advantage. In an age of commerce and technology, we are constantly being bombarded with advertisements everywhere we go. A study on how the Rhyme as Reasons Effect is used in commercials found that rhyming statements were more popular and easier to remember than non-rhyming statements, but the quality of the rhymes were also important as better rhymes were considered more trustworthy (Filkuková & Klempe, 2013). This study demonstrates the application of this effect on a day-to-day basis, and further emphasize how prevalent “aesthetic” is in our life as well as its effects on our choice and perception.

On a broader scale, the Rhyme as Reason Effect can also shift the scales of justice. One of the most well-known examples of this phenomenon occurred during the O.J Simpson murder trial in 1995 when Johnnie Cochran (O. J’s lawyer) said, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Cochran was referring to the bloodied glove found at the crime scene that was believed to belong to the murderer. Although the gloves were too small for O.J’s hand, this famous line helped his case as it may have swayed the jury’s judgment to simply focus on the gloves as evidence of innocence.

To conclude, the Rhyme as Reason Effect is a cognitive bias where we evaluate how true a statement is based on its aesthetic quality, and how easily it is processed by the brain. Often time, this effect occurs automatically because rhymes are easily remembered and repeated, thus allow us to recognize and expect it. However, just because something sounds catchy doesn’t mean that it is true.


Begg, I. M., Anas, A., & Farinacci, S. (1992). Dissociation of processes in belief: Source recollection, statement familiarity, and the illusion of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General121(4), 446. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.121.4.446

Filkuková, P., & Klempe, S. H. (2013). Rhyme as reason in commercial and social advertising. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology54(5), 423–431. https://doi.org/10.1111/sjop.12069

Sheingold, K., & Foundas, A. (1978). Rhymes for some reasons: Effect of Rhyme on Children’s Memory for Detail and Sequence in Simple Narratives. Psychological Reports43(3_suppl), 1231–1234. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1978.43.3f.1231

Unkelbach, C. (2007). Reversing the truth effect: Learning the interpretation of processing fluency in judgments of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(1), 219-230.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.33.1.219

McGlone, M. S., & Tofighbakhsh, J. (2000). Birds of a feather flock conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms. Psychological Science11(5), 424–428. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00282


Face it, You are Not THAT Important: The Spotlight Effect

November 26th, 2019 3 comments

www.pinterest.com Have you ever eaten alone in your college dining hall?

Now picture this: You walk into the dining hall alone, and you realize that most of the seats are already occupied by those sports teams, girls’ squads, and study groups… Everyone seems to be around with a bunch of people, except for you. You walk into this situation as if you break the “harmony”, and you feel like that everyone is staring at you or even secretly laughing at you — “Oh, she/he eats alone? Pathetic!” “Poor thing.” … But in reality, no one is actually watching you. They may not even notice that someone just came in. This also occurs in other scenarios: when you answered a question wrong in your class, when you had a bad hair, or when you got a zit on your nose tip, etc. If you find these situations familiar, please don’t worry! You are not pathetic, and you do not look ugly (or at least not that ugly, for sure) — You’ve just run into the Spotlight Effect! Read more…

Glory Days and Faded Heartbreaks: How Assessments of our Past Shape and Reflect Psychological Well-being in the Present.

November 26th, 2019 No comments

Peaked in High School or remembering it better than it was?

Before I present you with a base level summary of our current understanding of the psychological phenomenon known as Fading Affect Bias (FAB) and its relation to the conceptual system of autobiographical memory–complete with the associated empirical support, of course–I would first like to overanalyze some Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Don’t worry; it will all make sense soon enough. Read more…

Why You Should Take the Time to Rhyme: The Rhyme As Reason Effect

November 26th, 2019 1 comment

We’ve all been here…

Think back to your time in elementary school: you are having a running competition with your friends, and you have just won first place. However, your best friend, who got second place, is unhappy with the outcome and blurts out: “First is the worst, second is the best, third is the one with the treasure chest!” Immediately, any feelings of pride or accomplishment from winning the race vanish from your mind, and all you can think about is your friend’s outburst. You even start to believe that she is right… maybe getting second place really is better than getting first place.

Why do the presence of rhyming words in a sentence or phrase change our perception of the information received? Is it possible that we are more likely to believe information when it is presented through a rhyming aphorism, or concise statement, rather than when there is no rhyming at all? The Rhyme as Reason Effect seeks to answer this innate yet captivating phenomenon by suggesting: yes, using rhymes in sentences and phrases actually increases their perceived accuracy and trustworthiness when compared to sentences with the same semantic meaning, but without rhyming words.


The classic ‘Humpty Dumpty’ poem is so memorable, in part, because of its rhyming nature.

Examples of the Rhyme as Reason Effect have become so ingrained in our society that we often do not even notice them. Have you ever wondered why children’s books, nursery tunes, and popular phrases often consist of rhymes? Why are statements such as: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away;” “Fake it till you make it;” and “You snooze, you lose!” so universally well-known? Not only are these phrases catchy and concise; they also support the idea that sayings and aphorisms which contain a rhyme or rhymes are remembered more readily and accurately.

The suggestion that the presence of rhymes increases trustworthiness in the semantic message or meaning of the aphorism has been tested and proven on both children and adults, which makes the bias applicable to all people, regardless of demographic characteristics such as age, race, gender, and so on. Not only does rhyming increase the aesthetic and phonetic appeal of the sentence or aphorism, however; it also helps in the storage and retrieval aspects of remembering the statement. In other words, a rhyming phrase is usually easier to remember and process!


How Have Studies Proven the Rhyme As Reason Effect?

The cognitive bias behind the Rhyme as Reason Effect is especially supported in McGlone and Tofighbakhsh’s (2000) study titled “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms.” Participants were instructed to determine the accuracy of an aphorism in a 2x2x2 design with factors including rhyming vs. nonrhyming aphorism, original or modified aphorism, and control vs. warning condition. The study found that participants rated aphorisms in the

Examples of Rhyming Aphorisms vs. Nonrhyming Aphorisms.

original rhyming condition as more accurate than those in the nonrhyming modified condition.  These findings support the idea that phrases and statements that contain rhyming words are perceived as more trustworthy and believable than those that do not contain rhyming parts. However, when participants were warned to be wary of the effects that rhyming aphorisms can have on belief and accuracy ratings, there were no significant differences in accuracy ratings between the original rhyming condition and modified nonrhyming condition. Therefore, when participants are made aware of the semantic and poetic characteristics of a phrase, they are less likely to assign one with a higher rating of accuracy over another.


Another relevant study that analyzed the importance of surface features in lexical selection (such as rhyming) was conducted by Rapp and Samuel (2002). While most lexical decision tasks are based on semantic meaning and processing, the “A Reason to Rhyme: Phonological and Semantic Influences on Lexical Access” study focused on the interaction between semantic and feature-level characteristics in sentences and aphorisms. Participants were instructed to read a sentence with a blank space and provide a word to complete the sentence and fill in the space. Participants were randomly assigned to a rhyme condition (rhyme vs. nonrhyme) and sentence condition (within-sentence vs. between-sentence). Results showed that participants who were primed with the rhyming condition produced more rhymes than those that were assigned to the nonrhyme condition. In terms of the second condition, participants produced more rhymes when provided with a single sentence rather than multiple sentences, though results were not nearly as significant in this condition. Overall, the findings of this study show that participants in the rhyme prime were more likely to produce more rhymes when asked to complete a sentence. This shows that semantic and feature-level qualities are more accessible and easily retrieved when rhyming is included in processing of the word.


Has the Rhyme as Reason Effect ever been implemented in a real-life scenario? The answer is ‘YES!’

“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

One of the more famous examples of the use of the Rhyme as Reason Effect in a judicial circumstance is found in the murder trial of OJ Simpson in 1995. When referring to a pair of gloves, one of which was found at the murder scene and the other in Simpson’s home, the defendant’s lawyer stated: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” (Deutsch, 2014). The lawyer could have easily said, “because the glove does not fit, it does not belong to O.J. Simpson, and thus he is innocent” but his use of a rhyme created a memorable statement that stuck with the jury for the remainder of the trial. Many people who followed the case consider this claim to be a turning point in the Simpson trial (which the defense ended up winning) because of its unforgettable and catchy cadence and rhythm. This shows that the Rhyme as Reason Effect has just as much influence on adults as it does on children!


In all, the Rhyme As Reason Effect presents itself on a daily basis in our lives, so it is important to be aware of our cognitive biases towards sentences and aphorisms that include rhyming words. Rhymes are also used as a marketing tool, often to encourage consumers to buy a product in a commercial or advertisement. Many musicians and lyricists use rhymes in their songs to catch the attention of the listeners. Even business and political campaigns capitalize on the Rhyme As Reason Effect to gain a following (Filkuková & Klempe, 2013)! Being conscious of this effect will provide you with the appropriate tools to navigate modern society successfully and efficiently. On that note, I leave you with a final farewell …


Rapp, D. N., & Samuel, A. G. (2002). A reason to rhyme: Phonological and semantic influences on lexical access. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition28(3), 564–571. doi: 10.1037//0278-7393.28.3.564

Mcglone, Matthew S., and Jessica Tofighbakhsh. “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms.” Psychological Science11, no. 5 (September 2000): 424–28. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00282.

Deutsch, Linda. “OJ Simpson Trial: ‘If It Doesn’t Fit, You Must Acquit.’” NBC Southern California. NBC Southern California, June 11, 2014. https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/OJ-Simpson-20-Years-Later-Glove-Fit-Darden-Dunne-Murder-Trial-of-the-Century-262534821.html.

Filkuková, P., & Klempe, S. H. (2013). Rhyme as reason in commercial and social advertising. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology54(5), 423–431. doi: 10.1111/sjop.12069






Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

If You’re Reading This You’re Still Biased

November 26th, 2019 2 comments

But you might not be by the time you finish reading this blog post. As you probably know just from the existence of this blog, there has been a lot of talk lately about how biases affect us, and how we can educate ourselves to mitigate the effects of them. Across the internet, you can find countless articles about how to avoid biases in the workplaceclassrooms, job interviews, politics, and the mountains of information on biases continues to rise as more research is published and more psychology students write blog posts about them. Without a doubt, efforts to educate ourselves on biases is more than warranted given the effects they can have on us. The other race effect, for example, makes people less likely to remember faces belonging to people of a different race, and can have serious consequences when using eyewitness testimony to identify suspects of a crime. Further, the illusory truth effect causes us to view information that has been widely circulated and repeated as more truthful, and likely had a major influence when the rate of MMR vaccines to plummet when news outlets spewed out false information about a link between vaccines and autism. And if you want to know about other biases and how they affect behavior, just keep scrolling.

Before we can mitigate our biases, we need to acknowledge the bias blind spot and how it affects our cognitions.

Before you do that, though, I have some bad news. As research has shown, becoming aware of biases doesn’t actually make you any less susceptible to them. This phenomena is a result of the bias blind spot, which is our inclination towards identifying how biases affect others, while simultaneously maintaining an inability to recognize how our own judgement is affected by biases. In other words, educating ourselves about biases does not mean we can use this knowledge as a lens granting us unwavering vigilance for all the biases out there which may affect us. So, does this mean we’re all inevitably doomed to fall into the hands of biases no matter how hard we try to educate ourselves? In short, no. However, it takes more than just awareness of biases to reduce one’s susceptibility to the bias blind spot, and I firmly believe I can help you avoid it with this blog post so you can get the most out of the information in others’.

Before I can get there, though, we first need to understand a bit more about just what the bias blind spot is, how it was discovered, how it operates in the world, and what cognitive mechanisms it relies on. 

First of all, research on biases has been conducted for decades, but the bias blind spot wasn’t recognized until Emily Pronin and colleagues started researching it in 2002. Pronin’s first series of studies showed that after reading descriptions of numerous biases, people rated themselves as less susceptible to these biases than the average person, providing the basis of the bias blind spot. As a followup study, she had participants rate how they perceived their own positive and negative qualities, including consideration for others, objectivity, dependability, and snobbery, deceptiveness, and selfishness. Then, they read a description of the better-than-average effect – a cognitive bias whereby people always perceive themselves as ‘better than average’ in terms of their abilities and character traits, and they were told that 70-80% of people exhibit this bias. After, they rated how accurate they believed their initial ratings of themselves were. As expected, participants rated themselves as possessing more positive and less negative qualities than the average student – indicating that they had all just exhibited the better-than-average effect themselves. Interestingly, even after reading about this bias and being told about their susceptibility to it, 87% of participants claimed their initial ratings of themselves were either accurate, or that they had actually been too modest. Therefore, even after reading about a bias and being told about their susceptibility to it, people still exhibited the bias. 

More recently, a lot of work has been done to show just how pervasive and dangerous the blind spot can be, specifically regarding issues of criminal justice. Just this week, Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart were released from prison after 36 years of jail time for a murder they did not commit. Experts on the case say this injustice was largely due eyewitnesses misidentifying them as suspects, which remains one of today’s top causes of wrongful convictions in the courts. As it turns out, a study from 2018 directly investigated the effects of the bias blind spot on memory for witnesses to crimes in a study titled: Objectivity is a Myth for You but Not for Me or Police: A Bias Blind Spot for Viewing and Remembering Criminal Events. 

In this study, Kristyn Jones and colleagues presented participants with hypothetical crime scenarios (stabbings, robberies, or assault) where the eyewitness was either themselves, an average American, or a police officer standing 30 feet away from the crime when it happened. They were then asked to rate how susceptible the observer would be to biases in inferences based on what they saw (i.e. whether one can prevent their worldview from affecting the conclusions they draw based on their perception of the criminal event) and biases in memory for what they saw (i.e. whether one’s memory for the crime would be objective). The results showed that people believed they were less susceptible to biases in inference and memory than others, and people believed police were less susceptible to bias than the average American – especially when they identified more with police. Thus, although misidentification of suspects due to flaws in memory still occur to this day, people still believe their memories (and police’s memories) are objective because of the bias blind spot.

So, we now know that the bias blind spot is in fact a well documented phenomenon, and that it can have serious real world consequences, but just how does the bias blind spot work? And what features of our thinking make it so persistent? After her first series of studies in 2002, Pronin theorized that although we can heighten our consciousness of biases by reading about them and educating ourselves on how they operate, the fundamental shortcoming of these efforts is that biases still operate unconsciously. This means they are inaccessible to introspective thought, no matter how deeply we search within ourselves to identify our biases. This phenomenon is known as the introspection illusion. To test this theory, Pronin and colleagues conducted several more studies in 2007 to identify more of the cognitive mechanisms which help it operate.

In one study, Pronin examined the thoughts people have when demonstrating a bias. Similar to her 2002 study, she had Harvard students rate themselves on positive and negative characteristics relative to the average Princeton student. This time, they also had to write down all their thoughts about how they answered each question. As expected, the Harvard students did indeed exhibit the better-than-average effect, rating themselves more positively than the average Princeton student. When evaluating the thoughts participants had while rating themselves, they found that only one of the 32 participants demonstrated an awareness that their ratings may have been biased rather than objective. This student stated, “Hmm… I  wonder if I’m snobbier than I perceive.” As evidenced by others’ responses, participants’ introspections did not reveal a search for biases that may affect their judgement, and other sample responses included, “I don’t think I’m very deceptive at all. I’m a horrible liar and feel guilty even thinking about lying,” and, “I’m not very patient, but generally I get along w/ others pretty well.” 

So, what does this all mean? It means that even when we are thinking introspectively by evaluating our thoughts, motives, and feelings, the processes guiding this introspection still operates unconsciously. As was demonstrated in Pronin’s 2007 study, people’s thoughts were clearly influenced by the better-than-average effect, and even their introspective thoughts causing them to exhibit this bias were influenced by a self-enhancement bias, whereby people are unconsciously motivated to see themselves in a positive way to foster self-esteem.

Biases operate unconsciously and we cannot simply be ‘made aware’ of them.

More importantly, where does this leave us in terms of mitigating the bias blind spot? Many articles you’ll find online discussing how to avoid bias tout the importance of becoming “conscious of unconscious bias,” and look no further than the articles hyperlinked in the first paragraph of this post if you want more examples. However, as was just demonstrated, unconscious biases are inherently unavailable to introspection and subject to biases of their own. Luckily, Pronin and other researchers have investigated this further. 

In one study, Pronin had participants in the experimental condition read an article titled Unaware of Our Unawareness, which served to educate participants on the rigid limits of introspection by detailing the findings of numerous psychology studies documenting the effects of nonconscious influences on our cognitions. For example, one study referenced in the article had participants think about elderly people, and then unbeknownst to them, researchers recorded their walking speed after exiting the study. Relative to participants in the control condition, people who thought about the elderly actually walked slower! After reading the article, participants then read about several different biases and were asked to rate their susceptibility to them relative to the average person. At long last, participants who educated themselves on the limits of introspection rated themselves as equally susceptible to bias, thus mitigating the bias blind spot. Additionally, a 2016 study by Elena Bessarabova and colleagues investigated the effects of a specially designed video game on mitigating the bias blind spot. The video game, called MACBETH (Mitigating Analyst Cognitive Bias by Eliminating Task Heuristic). In the game, the player’s objective is to thwart terrorist threats by identifying possible attackers, weapons, and sites of possible attacks. In the process, the player must pass a training where they are instructed to resist tendencies towards impulsive decision making, take other characters’ opinions into account, and seek out information to disprove their own hunches. The results of this study demonstrated that participants who played this game exhibited reductions in their demonstrations of the bias blind spot when tested on the same measures used in Pronin’s original studies. 

So to sum this all up, we all care deeply about the biases affecting us – or I assume you do if you’re here reading the posts on this blog. However, research on the bias blind spot shows us that if we want to actually resist the biases we read about, simply reading about them isn’t enough. The thing that’s tricky about biases is that they operate unconsciously, so we can’t just ‘become conscious’ of what is inherently restricted from our conscious thoughts. However, as Pronin and Bessarabova’s studies show, we can overcome the bias blind spot by educating ourselves on the limits of our introspection and actively seeking out information to disprove ourselves. Now that you’ve finished reading this, are you less biased? Are you more or less susceptible to any of the other biases you’ve read about on this site than the average person? Don’t forget to check your blind spot!



Bessarabova, E., Piercy, C., King, S., Vincent, C., Dunbar, N., Burgoon, J., Miller, C., Jensen, M., Elkins, A., Wilson, D., & Lee, Y.H. (2016).  Mitigating bias blind spot via a serious video game. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 452-466.

Jones, K., Crozier, W., & Strange, D. (2018). Objectivity is a myth for you but not for me or police: A bias blind spot for viewing and remembering criminal events. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(2), 259-270.

Pronin, E. & Kugler, M. (2007). Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 565–578.

Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369–381.

Why we overlook our own shortcomings: a description of the Actor Observer Bias

November 26th, 2019 2 comments

Picture this: you are running late to drop your kids off at school in the morning and your children are having a fit in the back seat. On top of this, it is pouring rain outside. While you are driving down the highway, another car abruptly cuts you off as they are merging. As a result of your frustration, you start assigning internal traits to this person based on their action of cutting you off. You tell yourself they are a terrible driver and a rude person in general. You do not take into account that they may have had another factor that was affecting their driving ability, like the fact that they were late for an important meeting, or they were driving their sick pet to the vet. You automatically attribute their actions to internal factors without even thinking about what else could have caused them to cut you off. A couple of minutes later, you, yourself accidentally cut off someone while trying to take the exit off the highway to your child’s school. Instead of reacting in the same way you did to the previous person who carried out the same action as you did and automatically telling yourself you are a bad driver and rude person, you inform yourself your action is a result of the fact that you are late for your child’s dropoff at school and you cannot see as a result of the heavy rain. You tell yourself that on a normal day you would be much more careful. You do not think of yourself as a bad driver and rude person, as you thought of the other person, even though they did the same thing that you did. Why is it that we automatically assume others’ negative actions are a result of who they are as a person while being sympathetic and giving ourselves excuses? The actor-observer bias is an explanation for this confusing phenomenon. Read more…