Posts Tagged ‘Bias’

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?

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

November 26th, 2019 3 comments 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…

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…

Who Needs a Crystal Ball to See the Future When Hindsight Bias Makes You Feel as if You Knew it All Along

November 25th, 2019 1 comment

“I just can’t stand it anymore!” For the last two weeks, this has been Katie’s way of announcing to her mother that she is home from school. Why is Katie so upset? I’ll give you a hint- it’s March of her senior year and she is waiting on something…

You’re probably thinking, oh college decisions! That must be what she is waiting for.

Good guess, but this is something much more nerve-wracking.

She’s waiting for her crush to ask her to the senior prom.

“What happened today, sweetheart?,” her mom asked. “Ok, so it was during lunch and I was standing in front of Drew in the sandwich line. I totally saw him checking me out, so I thought, ‘might as well flash a smile his way’, so I smiled AND said hi to him. And you know what he did back? NOTHING. He pretended like I didn’t exist! Can you believe him?!”

“Well, maybe he didn’t see you Katie. I wouldn’t worry about it; I’ve seen the way he looks at you. Drew clearly likes you.” Katie groaned. “Sorry mom, but I think you’re wrong on this one. I’m just going to accept the fact that he NEVER is going to ask me out.”

“Just wait it out Katie; you always try to control the situation, but sometimes matters like this need time to work themselves out.” Katie rolled her eyes. “No, I think I’m just destined to live alone my whole life with only cats to keep me company. The sooner I accept reality the better.”

*One Week Later, Katie’s on the phone while walking into the house*

“Brittany, I know, what can I say, it was only a matter of time before he was going to ask me. Have you noticed the way he looks at me? I’ve known he was going to ask me the whole time.”

Katie may feel as if she knew it all along but she’s not fooling us…

“Katie, is that you? Did I just hear you say Drew finally asked you to the prom? This is so exciting! I told you not to worry.”

“Brittany, give me a second my mom is talking to me. What do you mean, worry? I’ve known he was going to ask me all along.”

*Katie leaves the room*

“Knew it all along huh?” Katie’s mom picked up an advertisement addressed to Katie from the counter. “I guess she won’t be needing this cat poster of the month subscription anymore”.

Like Katie’s mom, you may be confused as to why Katie suddenly feels as if she knew Drew was going to ask her all along when it’s evident she didn’t.

One possible explanation is hindsight bias.

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Get Ready…You’re Next.

November 24th, 2019 No comments

“When will I get to speak” – Instead of attending to Mr. Know-It-All, they wait in anticipation for their turn to speak next.

Imagine that you are in class and your teacher has split the class into multiple groups, assigning each group different chapters of your reading to summarize for the class. In your group, you collectively brainstorm with your other group members about chapter four and write down the main topics and themes that pop up throughout your discussion. When your teacher signals that it’s time for each group to share what they talked about, all your group members assign you to be the spokesperson since you have jotted down some general notes. “Yeah, sure. It’s no big deal,” you think to yourself. “It’s not a formal presentation or anything, I just have to summarize what we talked about.” The group’s spokesperson for chapter one goes first, followed by the group’s spokesperson for chapter two and then chapter three. As it nears your turn, you start to think about how to present a clear and concise summary to the class as your classmates have just done. All of a sudden, you’re up next, so you stand up and tell the class about the main topics your group discussed. When you sit back down, the group for chapter five begins to share, but you look back over your notes making sure you did not forget to include anything important. At the end of class, your teacher gives a mini quiz about the chapters the class just summarized, and you realize that you can’t really remember anything from the presentations on chapter three or five. What happened? You were subject to the next-in-line effect.

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Life was Never that Rosy

November 22nd, 2019 No comments

If you’ve ever watched Disney’s Pixar movie Up (and if you haven’t, beware of spoilers), you might remember Carl and his late wife Ellie’s adventure book called ‘Stuff I’m Going to Do’. The movie shows Carl remembering happy memories as he flips through the book, such as when he and Ellie got married and when they went on a picnic. But where are the flashbacks of the time their house partially got destroyed by a fallen tree or when Ellie had an unfortunate miscarriage? Well, the obvious reason is because it’s a movie by Disney and Pixar, so it can’t be too sad for children watching. The less obvious reason is that Carl fell victim to rosy retrospection!

Scene of Carl Fredericksen reminiscing memories of his late wife Ellie from Up by Disney’s Pixar.

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Take off the rose-tinted glasses: Rosy retrospection and the fallibility of memory

April 26th, 2018 8 comments

If you’ve ever binge-watched The Office, you probably remember the moment in the series finale when Andy Bernard reflects on his days at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Thinking back on his past – on the friends he made and the fun times he had – he says, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” Is he right? At the moment he said it, was Andy living in the “good old days?” Why will he be able to think back on that moment as if it were the “good old days” if he can’t see it right now? Five years from now, will we be looking back on 2018 like it was the “good old days?” Cognitive psychology has an answer: yes.

Allow me to explain: we often tend to remember and recollect past events in a more favorable light than when they actually occur. This is called rosy retrospection – have you ever heard of the idiom “to see through rose-tinted glasses?” It refers to the tendency to see something in a positive light, often better than it actually is. This memory bias applies to all of us – and it explains why we often recall the past much more fondly than the present. More generally, rosy retrospection represents one example of the way memory is not as accurate or reliable as we would like to believe. Memory is surprisingly fallible.
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The empathy gap: the cognitive scapegoat least likely to earn you brownie points in intimate relationships (or with HR)

April 22nd, 2018 No comments

I think you’d call that an objective overreaction (Marcinski, 2015)

Try to remember to the last time you had a fight with a romantic partner or friend, especially over a small misstep or misunderstanding. Were you angry at the time? Jealous? Hurt? If so, you probably said and did things you didn’t mean; perhaps you were intending to cause your partner the same pain you felt, or were simply lashing out impulsively, not caring to listen to their side of the story. Only your own feelings mattered.

Now think back to the aftermath, when you had resolved the issue and moved forward. Everything that happened in the heat of the argument might seem a bit silly to you now. Maybe your partner pointed out that you had overreacted; your emotions seemed perfectly valid then, but now, in a state of calm as you and your relationship are, you’re inclined to agree with them. There’s no way you acted like that; you had no reason to. You certainly won’t do so the next time you’re in an argument…right?

Unlike faucet taps, these states are rather mutually exclusive: no lukewarm middle ground here (

Wrong, says the empathy gap. Read more…