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Unchecked Biases Result in Inaccuracies and Impede Fairness

There are no beneficial biases.

Key points

  • Bias is defined as an unfair personal opinions that influences your judgment.
  • While cognitive shortcuts can be beneficial, the same is not true of implicit biases caused by such shortcuts.
  • An explicit bias is a conscious unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment.
  • An implicit bias is an unconscious unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment.

When people think or say something is biased, they tend to mean that they perceive it as unfair. In fact, the definition of bias in the Cambridge Dictionary is "an unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment," or some variation of this. Whether or not someone's perception of bias is accurate is a separate matter.

Words have meaning, people act in accordance with that meaning, and people tend to understand bias to mean that something is unfair.

While there are certainly upsides to cognitive shortcuts, such as improving decision-making efficiency, it is important to distinguish such shortcuts from the implicit biases they may create. According to Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral and data scientist and author of the book Sway, we carry biases or prejudices within us. We think they are egalitarian, but they may not be.

When people talk about the impact of biases on decision-making, they tend to be referring to inaccuracies, unfairness, and harm caused by both explicit and implicit biases. After all, consider the definition of bias and what people typically mean when they use that word. To say that implicit biases are neither good nor bad and that they are not about fairness appears to be conflating what Kwong referred to as cognitive shortcuts with implicit biases.

In her July 15, 2020, interview with Agarwal on NPR, Emily Kwong said, “Pragya says we sometimes take cognitive shortcuts to help make those decisions easier, shortcuts that can lead to implicit bias or, as it's sometimes called, unconscious bias, which is what her book ‘Sway’ is all about.” As explained in this interview, cognitive shortcuts "can lead to implicit bias."

Explicit biases are conscious and implicit biases are unconscious. Still, they both involve "unfair personal opinions that influence your judgment," which is the definition of bias.

When people ask if biases can ever be good, they are not typically asking if cognitive shortcuts are good for efficiency purposes; rather, they are asking whether people can make fair and accurate decisions because of their explicit and implicit biases. They are basically asking whether "an unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment" can ever be fair. Under those circumstances, saying that biases can be good or are neither good nor bad is not helpful.

If an opinion is not unfair, bias is not involved. Moreover, even if an opinion is unfair, if it is not influencing your judgment because you are aware of it and keeping it in check, bias is not involved in the decision-making.

It is important to also distinguish between benefiting from another person's biases and beneficial biases. Negotiators are often taught to take advantage of cognitive biases in negotiations. For example, such information was conveyed in a post on the blog for Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation titled The Advantages of Bias at the Negotiation Table. That information is not about what is and is not fair; rather, it is about how to benefit from the other party's unchecked cognitive biases. That is not a beneficial bias because it is the "knowledge of biases as an influencing tool in negotiation," not the biases themselves that are beneficial.

Whether biases are explicit or implicit, left unchecked, they cause people to constrict and distort the information they are willing and able to receive, try to understand, and consider in a fair manner. The more constricted and distorted the information received, understood, and fairly considered, the more impaired will be the thinking involved. When, if ever, is inaccurate decision-making on important decisions, good?


Implicit stereotypes and the predictive brain: cognition and culture in “biased” person perception. Nature.

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