We Don’t Recognize Our Own Biases

During my career, I’ve run a variety of group exercises designed to identify ways we could improve group performance. Typically my teams can identify areas of improvement but believe the challenges are with other people, not themselves. They suffer from the bias blind spot.

The bias blind spot is the cognitive bias of failing to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases. The term was coined by Emily Pronin, a Princeton social psychologist, who showed in a series of experiments that people rate themselves as less vulnerable to biases than the average person. In her words,

This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.

Study participants were told how a variety of cognitive biases work at the unconscious level. For example, the researchers explained that the better-than-average bias is the tendency of people to see themselves as above average for positive traits and less than average for negative ones. Despite this explanation, 63% of the participants insisted their self-assessments were accurate. Dilbert captured this sentiment perfectly:

© Scott Adams, Inc. http://dilbert.com/strip/2013-01-18

Pronin hypothesizes the bias blind spot is caused by a disconnect between how we evaluate ourselves and how we evaluate others. In the words of Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker:

When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.

The bias blind spot is caused by another cognitive bias – the introspective illusion. People wrongly think they have insight into the cause of their own mental states which leads them to inaccurately predict how they will behave. In fact, further introspection usually makes the situation worse. Despite popular wisdom, the researchers claim “the more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.”

Since I have an informal background in psychology, I wrongly assumed I would be less susceptible to the bias blind spot. In fact, increased awareness can cause increased bias. And before you think you’re smarter than that, here’s another unexpected finding: The bias blind spot seems to be even more pronounced with higher intelligence.

Smart people sometimes think they are smarter than they are.

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4 Responses to We Don’t Recognize Our Own Biases

  1. pkfletcher (@pkfletcher) March 8, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    Very much enjoyed this post, Jonathan, and it certainly has given me pause to ponder. I have studied unconscious bias, including my own, for a long while now. Putting this topic at odds with self-observation in the context of increasing EI with tools such as the Ladder of Inference certainly challenges what I had come to believe as true.

    Your last sentence, “Smart people sometimes think they are smarter than they are.” reminded me of my first residency in the beginning of my doctoral journey. One of the facilitators stood up in front of the room full of want-to-be scholars, each of us quite full of ourselves, and said “No one cares what you think because you don’t really know anything about anything, especially about yourselves.”

  2. TRedd March 9, 2015 at 11:12 am #

    JB, fortunately, I am not that smart so I am less locked on the bias issue. Today’s news mediums are a great source for many to create auto-bias. The images that they show program bias into TV addicts.

    TRedd

  3. VIvian Chan March 9, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

    I could not agree more with this article. The lesson I took out of it – stay humble, actively listen and ask good questions , don’t assume you know the answer to everything. Thanks Jonathan for this important reminder in the power of humility.

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