We Are Blind to Our Own Biases

The Hidden Nature of Bias

Posted Feb 17, 2011

Me? I am not biased at all. You? Well, that depends on if you agree with me or not.

From the perspective of naive realism, people tend to think they are accurate perceivers of the world. That is, people tend to think that their perceptions match "reality."

A wide range of research supports this. For instance,work by Emily Pronin (psychologist at Princeton University) and colleagues has had participants read descriptions of psychological biases, such as the "better than average" effect (e.g., over 96% of people think they are better than average at getting along with others). They then ask people how likely they are to display these biases, and how likely others are to display them.

They consistently find that people have a "bias blind spot," such that they rate other people as much more susceptible to these biases. It is as if people are thinking, "yeah ok, I will buy that these biases exist, but not for me!"

Other research on "casuistry" also supports naive realism. For instance, when making mock job decisions, men show a bias against hiring women (they are less likely to hire women). But, when asked why they made their hiring decisions, men in these studies do not ever say "I didn't pick her because she was a woman." Instead, they focus on whatever it is within the study that the woman is lacking. If she is experienced, but lacks education, education is emphasized. If she is educated, but inexperienced, then the mock hirers then emphasize that they made the decision based on experience.

This occurs even in private settings, suggesting that people aren't merely presenting themselves to others as unbiased. They, more likely, actually remain hidden to their own biases.

From Pronin's perspective, such a blind spot to our own biases persists because we use introspections to gauge our own bias, which rarely reveals bias. However, when we judge other's bias, we tend to rely more on their behavior (we aren't in their mind to read their introspections), which visibly reveal signs of bias and inconsistency.

So am I biased? Well, not as biased as you, though maybe if we agree with each other, I'll let you slide a little bit.

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