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If You’re Reading This You’re Still Biased

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 phenomenon 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. In the video game, called MACBETH (Mitigating Analyst Cognitive Bias by Eliminating Task Heuristic), 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!

 

References

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.

  1. caakal21
    December 5th, 2019 at 16:40 | #1

    This is so interesting and I could also see how it applies outside of cognitive psychology. I remember reading about another cognitive bias in which it is easier for us to see what is wrong with other than to pick out our own faults. Do you have any ideas of how we can prevent bias blindness from happening? Would becoming more mindful of our actions and biases help to prevent the bias blindness?

  2. jdcipo20
    December 6th, 2019 at 13:32 | #2

    @caakal21

    Unlike many of the articles you’ll find online about ‘becoming conscious of unconscious biases,’ I would recommend that instead we should try to become conscious of the limitations of introspection and the power of our unconscious cognitive processes. Pronin’s 2007 study showed that informing participants about these concepts caused them to realize that they are just as susceptible to biases as anyone else. Also, just like in the MACBETH video game, I would recommend actively trying to seek out information which disconfirms our preexisting beliefs, as this overrides the unconscious process of confirmation bias, where we tend to seek out information which affirms our biases.

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