Knowledge Is Power?
Learning about bias.
Posted Mar 11, 2018
I am very happy to begin writing for Psychology Today and for any readers interested in the topic of bias. Many areas of social science and psychology cover biases. They include social psychology, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics to name a few. I’ve been trained in social psychology, but I will draw from multiple areas.
The “fathers of behavioral economics,” psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, earned that title through their work on biases (Lam, 2017). In particular, they studied heuristics, which are the mental shortcuts people often take in making decisions. One of the defining features of heuristics is that they are fast, contributing to one of my regular suggestions for how to reduce bias—that we should slow down our thinking.
Heuristics don’t always lead to errors, just like stereotypes often have a kernel of truth. But the kernel is usually much smaller than most of us think and never justifies making assumptions about a particular individual.
Does knowing the actual size of the kernel help to reduce bias? Does knowledge give us power to be less biased? Yes, but not as much as we would hope.
Despite the claim by many popular press authors that learning about bias reduces bias, learning about bias is limited in how much it can help. For example, most people who read about bias think the bias pertains to other people, not themselves. Most of us have a hard time seeing our own bias, which is sometimes called the bias blind spot (Pronin et al., 2002).
Learning about the ways to reduce bias, such as slowing down our thinking, has an even better chance to reduce bias, especially if we are willing to try them. This blog is especially about the ways to reduce bias.
Though I am just beginning my new blog and am not certain what paths it may take, here are few starting points…
1. Bias as a topic of study goes beyond prejudice and stereotyping and beyond social psychology. There are dozens if not hundreds of ways that people misperceive themselves, others, and the world. I will draw from these works of literature.
2. Everyone is at risk (if not guilty) of bias, including me. But that doesn’t mean we’re all equally at risk of bias—some of us are more susceptible than others. I don’t presume to know where you, the reader, lie on this continuum. If you like, you can reflect on that issue.
3. As mentioned, learning about bias is not usually enough to substantially reduce bias. This type of knowledge or “book smarts” has some power, but it is limited. Learning about the tools to reduce bias can help more, especially if we actually try to use these tools for ourselves or others.
4. Too much knowledge can be scary or depressing—ignorance can be bliss in some cases.
In my blog, I will elaborate on each of these points. In particular, I plan to provide a number of strategies or tools to reduce bias. This plan includes sharing knowledge about bias from research articles and books and from my own experiences and that of others.
Some of what I plan to discuss is covered in further detail in my forthcoming book, The Power of Context. But this blog will go beyond the focus of my book and cover a wider array of the ways people misperceive or misjudge and the ways to minimize those misjudgments.
Bourree Lam, “The Friendship That Created Behavioral Economics: A Conversation With Michael Lewis About His New Book on the Research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky,” Atlantic, January 3, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/01/undoing-project/511958/.
Emily Pronin, Daniel Y. Lin, and Lee Ross, “The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self versus Others,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28 (2002): 369–81.