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Bias

A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone. Some biases are positive and helpful—like choosing to only eat foods that are considered healthy or staying away from someone who has knowingly caused harm. But biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance. Whether positive or negative, such cognitive shortcuts can result in prejudgments that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.

Bias and Stereotyping

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Bias is often characterized as stereotypes about people based on the group to which they belong and/or based on an immutable physical characteristic they possess, such as their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This type of bias can have harmful real-world outcomes. People may or may not be aware that they hold these biases.

The phenomenon of implicit bias refers to societal input that escapes conscious detection. Paying attention to helpful biases—while keeping negative, prejudicial, or accidental biases in check—requires a delicate balance between self-protection and empathy for others.

What is bias?

Bias is a natural inclination for or against an idea, object, group, or individual. It is often learned and is highly dependent on variables like a person’s socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, educational background, etc. At the individual level, bias can negatively impact someone’s personal and professional relationships; at a societal level, it can lead to unfair persecution of a group, such as the Holocaust and slavery.

What causes people to be biased?

Starting at a young age, people will discriminate between those who are like them, their “ingroup,” and those who are not like them, “their outgroup.” On the plus side, they can gain a sense of identity and safety. However, taken to the extreme, this categorization can foster an “us-versus-them” mentality and lead to harmful prejudice.

Biases and Cognitive Errors

A category of biases, known as cognitive biases, are repeated patterns of thinking that can lead to inaccurate or unreasonable conclusions. Cognitive biases may help people make quicker decisions, but those decisions aren’t always accurate. Some common reasons why include flawed memory, scarce attention, natural limits on the brain’s ability to process information, emotional input, social pressures, and even aging. When assessing research—or even one's own thoughts and behaviors—it’s important to be aware of cognitive biases and attempt to counter their effects whenever possible.

What is actor-observer bias?

When you are the actor, you are more likely to see your actions as a result of external and situational factors. Whereas, when you are observing other people, you are more likely to perceive their actions as based on internal factors (like overall disposition). This can lead to magical thinking and a lack of self-awareness.

What is anchoring bias?

People tend to jump at the first available piece of information and unconsciously use it to “anchor” their decision-making process, even when the information is incorrect or prejudiced. This can lead to skewed judgment and poor decision-making, especially when they don’t take the time to reason through their options.

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