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Are We as Objective as We Think?

Exploring Beliefs About our Own Biases

By and large, the human brain is amazing. We can imagine things that do not exist. We can think into the past, and into future. And at any given moment, our brain is taking in thousands (millions?) of pieces of information from our physical environment. Add another person into the environment, or groups of people, and that information grows exponentially. And yet, we manage to function quite well. That is pretty awesome; it really is.

But, despite that, there are a wide range of biases in human thinking that researchers have discovered. The basic gist behind this research is that what people think is true is often not true. We tend to think that how we see and view things reflects an objective reality, but this is often not the case. To take a quick example, if you ask people if they are better than average at something, pretty much no matter what it is, more than 50% of people will say that they are. One study asked this question about car driving, and found that over 90% of people report thinking they are better than the average driver, and the numbers weren't that far off for people who had been in multiple car accidents!

Perhaps the most interesting human bias (in my opinion at least!) is what Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, dubbed "the bias blind spot." Research she and her colleagues have conducted shows that people are largely immune (i.e., "blind") to their own biases. For instance, this research will explain a certain human bias to people, such as hindsight bias (the tendency to exaggerate the extent to which you knew something would happen, once it has happened). It then will ask them how susceptible they are to this bias, as well as how susceptible they think that other people are.

This research finds that people will accept that biases in exist in others, but tend to deny that they themselves are biased.

There are ample examples of this, such as judges insisting they would be unbiased in judging a friend's trial, or researchers claiming they are not biased when being paid to reach certain conclusions in their research. Perhaps the most famous example is people's view of their children. Or how every teenager on Facebook posts "I have the greatest friends ever," or how every anniversary for a couple is flooded with "the greatest husband/wife in the world" comments. Heck, I do this with my pet poodle, Emily. She is the best. I refuse to admit that is a biased statement. She really is!!!!! (just look at that face. So cute you can't stand it?).

But why does this bias blind spot occur? Pronin and colleagues have found that when evaluating one's own biases, the self relies on and highly values introspection. When evaluating others, we tend to rely on behaviors. Behaviors reveal bias in many situations. Introspection fails to reveal bias.

This research is important for many reasons. For instance, the world is full of conflict on many levels from nations at war, to couples fighting over who does more chores, to children fighting over a toy. And these conflicts often occur in part because we think that we are right and that the person (or people, or nation) we are disagreeing with is wrong. But the truth is that we both are seeing our own biased perceptions of things. The other side has a different perception of how things are, but that does not mean they are wrong.

But regardless, my dog is awesome. She just is.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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