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I’m Not Biased… You Are!

Us vs. Them

Think about the last time you immediately doubted someone’s actions or statements. Maybe you thought they were only doing it for their own self-interest. Perhaps 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. Naïve realism states that people believe everyone else who disagrees with them can’t help being subjective because they are all biased. Both of these biases are also clearly related to the bias blind spot, which is a phenomenon in which we are able to recognize how other people’s judgments are affected by their biases but fail to see those effects in ourselves. Even though we may be educated on these cognitive biases, we remain susceptible to them and are unable to recognize our personal biases.

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 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?


The theory behind it

So, let me explain why people are naïve to be biased themselves and instead believe everyone else is biased. Metacognition, which is our awareness of understanding a topic (“knowing what you know”) sets the basis for being naively cynical. Our biases derive from previous knowledge and preconceived notions about the world formed throughout our lifetime. We have personal ideas about the world and have difficulty accepting different beliefs. For example, the weapon bias is when people are more likely to see a weapon even when there isn’t one, due to racial stereotypes (Payne, 2006). In this test of people’s implicit bias, participants were shown images of either Black or White men preceding images of either a weapon or a hand tool, and it turned out that people more likely to identify an object as a weapon if it was shown after a Black male face, even if the object wasn’t actually a weapon. This is because of the shared (incorrect) societal belief that Black people are more violent than White people. Most importantly though, the participants were not aware of the bias they were exhibiting in the test which helps explain why naïve cynicism is a thing. The underlying cognitive process that we see play out here is that when we are recognizing faces or even patterns, we don’t only access surface-level information. In this task, the fact that the face of a Black person primes people to think a tool is a weapon shows that we also access previous knowledge and stored information such as stereotypes.

As you can see we don’t actually know how much the concept of self-interest affects our everyday decisions. We think that we ourselves are objective and don’t do things for our benefit, but instead, that other people are influenced by their self-interest much more (Miller & Ratner, 1998). When people were asked to what extent being offered money would influence other’s willingness to give blood, the results showed that people overestimated others’ power of self-interest (Miller & Ratner, 1998). Once again, they were wrong! Being offered money for donating blood did not affect people’s motivation to volunteer, at least not as much as the (judgmental) unknowingly biased participants of the study believed it did. So obviously there is a gap between how much people believe self-interest has an effect on others and the reality of it. Lack of metacognitive awareness, anyone?

naiveness (ingenuous) + cynic (skeptic) = naive cynic

It doesn’t stop there though, even when people are presented with information that should show that other peoples’ self-interest is not as powerful, they still stand by their naïve cynicism. Critcher and Dunning carried out a study in which participants learned of students who were either academically honest or dishonest, and they then had to assess the influence of self-interest on those behaviors. It turned out that the participants were sure that students did not commit acts of academic dishonesty for their own self-interest, so to not be penalized. They also believed that at some point those who were honest would behave dishonestly (Critcher & Dunning, 2011). Even when we are shown people are being selfless, we still have a feeling that their behavior is influenced by egocentric biases.

Okay, now you’re actually aware of how naïve cynicism affects our world view and our judgments of other people. Congrats! So next time someone tells you that they are doing community service because they want to help out in their community what will you do? Hopefully, you will at least take some time to consider that they may actually be a good citizen, instead of immediately assuming they’re doing it just for the benefits of being seen as a moral person. Make sure you remember that you and I are also biased, and we are not always in the right.


Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2011). No good deed goes unquestioned: Cynical reconstruals maintain belief in the power of self-interest. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(6) 1207-1213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.001

Kruger, J., & Gilovich. T. (1999). “Naïve cynicism” in everyday theories of responsibility assessment: On biased assumptions of bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(5), 743-753. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.76.5.743

Miller, D. T., & Ratner, R. K. (1998). The disparity between the actual and assumed power of self-interest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 53-62. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.53

Payne, B. K. (2006). Weapon bias: Split-second decisions and unintended stereotyping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 287-291. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00454.x

  1. caakal21
    December 5th, 2019 at 16:29 | #1

    I think this bias is so interesting. It reminded me of how people think that everyone knows what they know. I am wondering if as you were doing research your research for this if you also happened to stumble upon on articles talking about if the power of knowledge had any interaction with naive cynicism.

  2. December 5th, 2019 at 18:40 | #2

    Hey Paula! This was a really well-written post, and I learned a lot about naïve cynicism that I did not know before. Something that struck me about this post was its relatability to the Actor-Observer bias. In a similar way to the naïve bias, the Actor-Observer bias allows people to assume that they are always in the right, while others who commit a similar act are in the wrong. It would be super interesting to create a study to observe the interaction between the two biases. I predict that they would occur simultaneously quite often! Though healthy discussion and debate are important parts of our interactions as intellectual beings, this bias is definitely important to acknowledge and try to avoid!

  3. December 6th, 2019 at 09:41 | #3

    Hi Paula! I really enjoyed reading and learning about why naïve cynicism occurs as this post goes further than providing a basic definition. I found it interesting to see the connection to metacognition as we have observed throughout various studies that we often lack the ability to accurately assess our own performance in memory or multi-tasking. In this case, our failures in metacognition extend to how we judge others opinions and assess our own reasoning and arguments. This post has definitely influenced me to try and assess my own opinions and arguments more critically!

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