Why You’re Biased About Being Biased
by Jim Davies
In a classic experiment in 1953, students spent an hour doing repetitive, monotonous tasks, such as rotating square pegs a quarter turn, again and again. Then the experimenters asked the students to persuade someone else that this mind-numbing experience was in fact interesting. Some students got $1 ($9 today) to tell this fib while others got $20 ($176 today). In a survey at the end of the experiment, those paid only a trivial fee were more likely to describe the boring activity as engaging. They seemed to have persuaded themselves of their own lie.
According to the researchers, psychologists Merrill Carlsmith and Leon Festinger, this attitude shift was caused by “cognitive dissonance,” the discomfort we feel when we try to hold two contradictory ideas or beliefs at the same time. When faced with two opposing realities (“This is boring” and “I told someone it was interesting”), the well-paid students could externally justify their behavior (“I was paid to say that”). The poorly paid students, on the other hand, had to create an internal justification (“I must have said it was interesting for some good reason. Maybe I actually liked it”).
Scientists have uncovered more than 50 biases that, like this one, can mess with our thinking. For instance, there’s the “availability heuristic,” which makes us think something that’s easy to recall (because it’s emotional or because we’ve experienced it many times) is more common or probable than it really is. (Despite what you might think from watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the world isn’t full of serial killers.) There’s also the “distinction bias,” which makes two options seem more different when considered simultaneously; the “denomination effect,” which makes us more likely to spend money when it’s in small bills or coins; and the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which makes experts underestimate their abilities and laypeople overestimate theirs.
Such biases can still affect you even if you know all about them because they operate unconsciously. We judge whether we have a bias by examining our thoughts, and because we believe our thoughts are rational, we often think we’re not biased when we are. Psychologists call this contradiction the “bias blind spot.” Although we’re quick to see biases in others, we have more trouble noticing them in ourselves…
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