Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias > From cocky and conflict ridden to conscious: Causes and implications of the bias blind spot

From cocky and conflict ridden to conscious: Causes and implications of the bias blind spot

“You are extremely average with extremely mediocre talent” my sister tells me every time she thinks I get overly confident and cocky. Why might she say this to me? In order to “plateau” me. “Plateauing,” as my sister would define it, involves dosing out a few insults in order to counteract the effects of excessively high self-esteem.

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Or, as a cognitive psychologist might say, dosing out a few insults in order to counteract the self-enhancement bias (i.e. viewing yourself in a very positive way). My sister (as many siblings tend to do) easily recognizes when I act on the self-enhancement bias- and thank goodness she does! Why? Because I don’t.

Before you start feeling bad for me and the fact that I don’t have the ability to recognize my own biases, I’d like to introduce another type of bias, called the bias blind spot. The bias blind spot is the inability for people to recognize a bias in themselves, even if they can see it in others. Studies show that people of all ages and backgrounds are likely to notice biases in others, but do not notice biases in themselves (Pronin, 2007; Pronin & Kugler, 2007; West, Meserve, & Stanovich, 2012). So guess what? Research says that you too are susceptible to be blind to the effects biases play on your thoughts and actions. Not so cocky now, aren’t you?

According to Pronin (2007), a prominent researcher on the bias blind spot, there are three major psychological mechanisms that can account for the reason my sister so easily sees my biases when I cannot. The first, as previously mentioned, actually is the self-enhancement bias itself. In order to maintain a strong, confident ego, we tend to see ourselves in the best way possible. By having the bias blind spot, we are able to see ourselves as being better, more objective human beings. Let’s say my chemistry professor approaches me and a group of friends and asks us to help out at the upcoming science fair. I say yes, of course. Do I say yes because I am dedicated to helping educate others and volunteering my time to better the greater good? I certainly think it is- talk about an ego booster. In reality, however, I am likely influenced by the fact that it will put me in good standings with the professor, show off that I’m at least somewhat knowledgeable about chemistry, and possibly earn me extra credit points. Because of the bias blind spot, I do not see myself as being externally motivated to participate. Instead, I see myself as a good citizen and helpful student (cough, cough- self-enhancement).

In addition to the self-enhancement bias, the introspection illusion explains why we have a bias blind spot. We tend to overvalue our own introspections (i.e. looking inwards to our thoughts), which causes us to believe that we would see our own biases (Pronin & Kugler, 2007). When we judge other people, we judge them based on their behavior, and therefore can tell if they are acting biased. In contrast, when we judge ourselves, our judgment is heavily based on our introspections. In this sense, where we focus our attention has to do with what we are able to notice. Because attention is a limited cognitive resource, we are only able to pay attention to a few things at once. In this case, when we judge ourselves, our attention is focused on our thoughts. We do not pay attention to our actions, as we would with other people, so we thereby are relying completely on introspection. The major issue with introspection is that it cannot detect unconscious thought (Pronin & Kugler, 2007), and as studies have shown, biases tend to be unconscious. So in fact, we cannot rely on our ability to introspect in order to detect our biases because they may not even appear in our thoughts! This

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lack of awareness of introspection as a limitation is one of the major contributors to the bias blind spot. In order to solve this issue, we must shift our attention from introspection to our actions and behaviors.

How about an example for some clarification? Imagine you are living with a roommate- be that person a sibling, a spouse, or a friend. You two are on different sleeping cycles- your roommate goes to bed around 8:00 PM, then wakes up at 6:45 AM, while you go to sleep at 11:30 PM and wake up around 9:00 AM. You are getting frustrated that the lights are always off when you want to shower and change to get ready to go to sleep, and you can tell that your roommate is mad at you for moving around that late at night and waking them up. You want to discuss the problem, but your roommate tends to avoid confrontation and hasn’t brought up the issue to you. Here, you recognize the ostrich effect in your roommate. You use your analyses of their actions of avoiding you and changing the topic whenever discussing sleeping cycles as a clue to this bias in them. Do you show the ostrich effect as well? You have constantly been thinking about the issue, what you would say to your roommate if they brought it up, and even created possible resolutions to the issue. Reflecting on your own thoughts, you cannot see yourself as biased. If you take a step back, however, you might see that perhaps you are. Have you confronted your roommate? No. You’ve only thought about it. Here, you can easily see how relying on your own thoughts is not a sufficient method for detecting your own bias. Better focus your attention on your actions rather than your thoughts!

Along with introspection and the self-enhancement bias, the bias blind spot can be caused by naïve realism- the tendency to assume that we see the world objectively, just as it is. We assume that our thought processes are driven by bottom-up thought- meaning that we see environmental stimuli in the world and interpret them objectively. In reality, both bottom-up and top-down processes contribute to our perception of the world. Disagreements can highlight how naïve realism leads to the bias blind spot (Pronin, 2007). When we disagree with someone, we assume that they must be using top-down (instead of bottom-up) thought processes for interpreting environmental stimuli- that is, they are using their prior thoughts, beliefs, values, and motives to influence how they see the world (Gilovich, Pronin, & Ross, 2004). For example, pretend you are shopping at a thrift store. You find an adorable antique lamp that would really add to the aesthetic of your living room. You go to the cashier and he tells you its 120 dollars. 120 dollars?! It’s a nice lamp, but based on the material it’s made of, you determine that it isn’t that nice. You tell him it couldn’t possibly be worth that much, and you’ll give him 80 dollars. He tells you that it’s very well made and one of a kind, which is why it’s so expensive and he cannot accept reductions to the price. Is he kidding? Is he looking at the same lamp? You assume his motives to make as large a profit as possible are influencing how he sees the lamp. This conflict won’t be settled, unless, of course, you can recognize that perhaps you aren’t looking at the lamp objectively either. Your motivation as a consumer to get the most for your buck is influencing your opinions of the lamp.

In this past example, we can see how the bias blind spot can have a negative impact on interpersonal interactions. When we are not able to see our own biases, we are likely to become more competitive with the person with whom we are in disagreement (Pronin, 2007). Does this mean we are doomed to constantly be in conflict with those people who have differing opinions? Not necessarily. By understanding the fact that our biases are often unconscious, we can reduce the effects of the bias blind spot (Pronin, 2007). So next time you find yourself in conflict with someone who has a different opinion from yours, take a step back. Step off your

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high pedestal, deflate your ego, and redirect your attention to your actions. Consider the fact that you may be biased, even if you don’t think you are. What are all the possible motives you may be experiencing? Are you protecting your ego? Try asking yourself these questions in order to be able to recognize when you are being biased. And if you truly can’t find a way to recognize your biases on your own, find someone like my sister and teach them how to “plateau” you.

 

References

Gilovich, T., Pronin, E., & Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the                                     beholder: Divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological Review, 111(3), 781-799. doi:10.1037//033-295X.111.3.781

Pronin, E. (2007). Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(1), 37-43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.001

Pronin, E., & Kugler, M.B. (2007). Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(4), 565-578. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.011

West, R.F., Meserve, R.J., & Stanovich, K.E. (2012). Cognitive sophistication does not attenuate the bias blind spot. Journal Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 506-519. doi:10.1037//a0028857

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