You are here

Biased About Our Biases: The Bias Blind Spot

15 January, 2016 - 09:15

So far, we have discussed some of the most important and heavily researched social cognitive biases that affect our appraisals of ourselves in relation to our social worlds and noted some of their key limitations. Recently, some social psychologists have become interested in how aware we are of how these biases and the ways in which they can affect our own and others’ thinking. The short answer to this is that we often underestimate the extent to which our social cognition is biased, and that we typically (incorrectly) believe that we are less biased than the average person. Researchers have named this tendency to believe that our own judgments are less susceptible to the influence of bias than those of others as the bias blind spot (Ehrlinger, Gilovich, & Ross, 2005). Interestingly, the level of bias blind spot that people demonstrate is unrelated to the actual amount of bias they show in their social judgments (West, Meserve, & Stanovich, 2012). Moreover, those scoring higher in cognitive ability actually tend to show a larger bias blind spot (West et al., 2012).

So, if our social cognition appears to be riddled with multiple biases, and we tend to show biases about these biases, what hope is there for us in reaching sound social judgments? Before we arrive at such a pessimistic conclusion, however, it is important to redress the balance of evidence a little. Perhaps just learning more about these biases, as we have done in this chapter, can help us to recognize when they are likely to be useful to our social judgments, and to take steps to reduce their effects when they hinder our understanding of our social worlds. Maybe, although many of the biases discussed tend to persist even in the face of our awareness, at the very least, learning about them could be an important first step toward reducing their unhelpful effects on our social cognition. In order to get reliably better at policing our biases, though, we probably need to go further. One of the world’s foremost authorities on social cognitive biases, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, certainly thinks so. He argues that individual awareness of biases is an important precursor to the development of a common vocabulary about them, that will then make us better able as communities to discuss their effects on our social judgments (Kahneman, 2011). Kahneman also asserts that we may be more likely to recognize and challenge bias in each other’s thinking than in our own, an observation that certainly fits with the concept of the bias blind spot. Perhaps, even if we cannot effectively police our thinking on our own, we can help to police one another’s.

These arguments are consistent with some evidence that, although mere awareness is rarely enough to significantly attenuate the effects of bias, it can be helpful when accompanied by systematic cognitive retraining. Many social psychologists and other scientists are working to help people make better decisions. One possibility is to provide people with better feedback. Weather forecasters, for instance, are quite accurate in their decisions (at least in the short-term), in part because they are able to learn from the clear feedback that they get about the accuracy of their predictions. Other research has found that accessibility biases can be reduced by leading people to consider multiple alternatives rather than focusing only on the most obvious ones, and by encouraging people to think about exactly the opposite possible outcomes than the ones they are expecting (Hirt, Kardes, & Markman, 2004). And certain educational experiences can help people to make better decisions. For instance, Lehman, Lempert, and Nisbett (1988) found that graduate students in medicine, law, and chemistry, and particularly those in psychology, all showed significant improvement in their ability to reason correctly over the course of their graduate training.

Another source for some optimism about the accuracy of our social cognition is that these heuristics and biases can, despite their limitations, often lead us to a broadly accurate understanding of the situations we encounter. Although we do have limited cognitive abilities, information, and time when making social judgments, that does not mean we cannot and do not make enough sense of our social worlds in order to function effectively in our daily lives. Indeed, some researchers, including Cosmides and Tooby (2000) and Gigerenzer (2004) have argued that these biases and heuristics have been sculpted by evolutionary forces to offer fast and frugal ways of reaching sound judgments about our infinitely complex social worlds enough of the time to have adaptive value. If, for example, you were asked to say which Spanish city had a larger population, Madrid or Valencia, the chances are you would quickly answer that Madrid was bigger, even if you did not know the relevant population figures. Why? Perhaps the availability heuristic and cognitive accessibility had something to do with it—the chances are that most people have just heard more about Madrid in the global media over the years, and they can more readily bring these instances to mind. From there, it is a short leap to the general rule that larger cities tend to get more media coverage. So, although our journeys to our social judgments may not be always be pretty, at least we often arrive at the right destination.