The Bias Blind Spot: People Are Often Unaware of Their Own Biases

 

The bias blind spot is a cognitive bias that causes people to be less aware of their own biases than of those of others, and to assume that they’re less susceptible to biases than others.

For example, the bias blind spot can cause someone to assume that other people’s political stance is influenced by various biases, whereas their own political stance is perfectly rational.

The bias blind spot can strongly influence people, including you, in a variety of domains, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the bias blind spot, and understand what you can do to account for and reduce it, in yourself and in others.

 

Examples of the bias blind spot

One example of the bias blind spot is that, when people are asked to assess a social conflict, they often assume that their own interpretation of it is fair, but that other people’s interpretations of it will be biased. Furthermore, people tend to assume this even when they’re clearly biased due to liking one of the individuals in the conflict, and even when they’re explicitly warned about this bias.

In addition, the following are examples of other ways in which the bias blind spot can influence people:

  • It can cause people to assume that they’re less likely to experience various biases than their peers or the general population.
  • It can cause people to be bad “bias detectors” when it comes to their own biases, even if they’re good at detecting biases in others.
  • It can cause people to fail to realize that they’ve displayed a certain bias, even when they’re given an explicit description of the bias and are asked whether it could have influenced their reasoning.
  • It can cause people to assume that their judgments and decisions are objective, even in cases where they recognize biases in their judgment and decision-making process.
  • It can cause people to assume that their personal connection to a certain issue is a source of accuracy and enlightenment for them and for those who share their stance, but that the same connection leads to biases among people who have an opposing stance.

Furthermore, one study presents several examples that outline the potential dangers of the bias blind spot:

“The consequences of seeing oneself as objective while seeing one’s judgmental strategy as biased may be serious.

Consider a group of jurors who have just been exposed to testimony that they are now told to disregard as inadmissible. Each juror may admit a priori that being exposed to inadmissible evidence biases judgment. However, having been exposed to that information, each is likely to believe that his or her own judgment is objective (although that judgment likely took into account the ‘inadmissible’ evidence…).

Or, consider a team of human resources officials who have a hiring process in which they see photographs of applicants before evaluating the merits of their applications. Each official might view that process as introducing a host of potential biases, but each might believe that they personally can overcome that bias (and, thereby, benefit from being able to ‘attach a face’ to an application). This blindness may be especially likely to foster conflict between people who disagree after going through the same judgmental process. Each may not only be confident in his or her own objectivity but also quick to impute bias to the person who disagrees—and who was subject to a biased decision-making process.

Ironically, people’s recognition of bias in their judgmental strategies could strengthen their confidence in their personal objectivity. Consider the sports coach who explicitly decides to give his biggest players the best playing time during the pre-season and to evaluate, when pre-season ends, who should be in the starting line-up. The coach would readily acknowledge that his process is biased toward the big players. Compare him with a coach who does not make the same explicit choice but who, implicitly, ends up giving her biggest players the best playing time in the pre-season. The present research suggests that both coaches are likely to be biased toward the big players when they choose their starting line-ups, and that both coaches are likely to deny showing that bias. Ironically, the coach who recognized the potential for bias in his process may be especially confident in his objectivity—perhaps because he is keenly aware of the steps he took to avoid being influenced by that bias or even because he simply has the knowledge that he felt unbiased even in the face of it.”

— From “People claim objectivity after knowingly using biased strategies” (Hansen et al., 2014)

Finally, the bias blind spot can extend to people’s view of other individuals in some cases. For example, the bias blind spot can cause people to underestimate the likelihood of biases in authority figures, which means, for instance, that people who have a positive view of police officers or financial advisors tend to perceive them as being less biased than the general population.

Note: evidence of the bias blind spot has been found when it comes to various cognitive and motivational biases, and in a wide range of samples, including undergraduate students, airport travelerschildren, and forensic mental health professionals.

 

Psychology and causes of the bias blind spot

People’s tendency to underestimate or be unaware of their own biases is attributed to three main causes:

  • Naive realism. This represents people’s tendency to assume that their perspective is entirely objective, meaning they can see things as they actually are.
  • The introspection illusion. This represents a self-other asymmetry, whereby people over-value mental contents, such as thoughts and feelings, at the expense of behavioral ones, when assessing their own preferences, motives, and actions, but not when assessing those of others.
  • Ego-related needs. These needs prompt people to engage in self-enhancement and ignore their biases in order to feel better about themselves.

When it comes to naive realism as a cause of the bias blind spot, one study explains this phenomenon as follows:

“…we hold our experience of people, objects, and events in our world to be veridical, more or less ‘unmediated,’ perceptions of reality. We further extend this epistemic stance to include perceptions of more complex objects such as evaluations of arguments, attributions of cause and effect, and even interpretations of historical fact. This sense that we perceive reality without any distortion arises in part because we lack direct access to the cognitive and motivational processes (to say nothing of the underlying biochemical processes) that influence our perceptions…

Because we lack immediate access to these processes, we do not consciously experience or otherwise enjoy direct access to their biasing effects. Instead, the operation of bias must be inferred. Such inferences are precisely those we make when there seems to be a discrepancy between what another individual perceives, or at least what he or she claims to perceive, and what we assume to be reality. Because our peers, and especially our adversaries, often fail to share our views, we inevitably infer that they are less objective than we are. Furthermore, we readily apply what we know about specific biases from observing our peers and from the wisdom handed down to us by our sages to diagnose specific failures on their part to see the world ‘as it is.’ What we are slow to recognize, of course, is that our views of the world are no less subject to those same specific biases. Again, our conviction at the time we are making a specific judgment is that we are merely ‘seeing things as they are’ and then ‘calling them as we see them.’”

— From “The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others” (Pronin, Lin & Ross, 2002)

In addition, when it comes to the introspection illusion as a cause of the bias blind spot, one study notes the following:

“The observed self—other asymmetry in people’s willingness to rely on introspective information has been referred to as an introspection illusion because the faith people have in the diagnostic value of their introspections is misplaced. It is true that introspective contents, such as thoughts, feelings and intentions, can provide a useful source of information about the self, for example when it comes to understanding the causes of our behavior or predicting how we will act in the future… But, it is also true that such information can mislead us in those very same cases, when our behavior has been influenced by nonconscious cues or when future circumstances prevent our good intentions from translating into good behavior…

In most of life, we are judged by our actions rather than by our intentions, hopes, or feelings. We are generally characterized as good or evil, generous or greedy, and wild or dull, not by what we think about but by what we actually do. In this light, it is striking that people ignore their own actions when making assessments of bias. Although the term introspection illusion emphasizes self—other differences in the faith that people place in their introspections, a necessary component of it involves the neglect with which people treat their own behaviors.”

— From “Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot” (Pronin & Kugler, 2007)

 

Variability in the bias blind spot

There is substantial variability when it comes to who experiences the bias blind spot and when.

For example, personal factors, such as age, can influence the likelihood that people will display the bias blind spot, and some individuals are more susceptible to it in general than others.

Similarly, the characteristics of the biases themselves, such as their cognitive availability and social desirability, can also influence the likelihood that people will display the bias blind spot toward them. For instance, the lower the social desirability of a certain bias (i.e., the more negatively it reflects on the person who displays it), the more likely people are to display the bias blind spot toward it.

 

How to avoid the bias blind spot

There are several things that you can do to avoid the bias blind spot, and consequently become more aware of how cognitive biases influence your thinking.

First, you should learn about the bias blind spot. Specifically, you should understand what it is, why it occurs, and how and when it can influence people in general.

Second, you should accept that you’re susceptible to the bias blind spot, just like everyone else. Keep in mind that cognitive sophistication, which includes factors such as general cognitive ability and thinking disposition, does not generally reduce the likelihood of experiencing the bias blind spot, and it can even increase it in some cases. This means that simply being smart and aware of biases in general doesn’t mean that you won’t experience the bias blind spot.

Third, you should actively consider whether you might be experiencing the bias blind spot or other biases. For example, you can assess your current reasoning process, and try to determine whether there are any biases that might be influencing it. In doing this, you can consider which biases could potentially influence someone in your situation, and then ask yourself whether you might be experiencing any of these biases, and if not, then why.

Furthermore, you should keep the potential causes of the bias blind spot in mind, and try to account for them. Specifically:

  • When it comes to naive realism, you should recognize and remember that your perception of events isn’t necessarily objective. You can internalize this in various ways, such as by reminding yourself of past cases where you misinterpreted situations, or by considering related issues, such as the psychologist’s fallacy.
  • When it comes to the introspection illusion, you should recognize and remember the tendency to judge yourself based on your thoughts but others by their actions. You can then account for this in various ways, such as by thinking about ways in which your actions may be indicative of bias, regardless of whether you’re not intending to be biased.
  • When it comes to ego-related needs, you should recognize and remember that you likely want to believe that you’re not experiencing biases, because that could improve your perception of yourself. You can then account for this in various ways, such as by telling yourself that experiencing biases is natural, or by telling yourself that ignoring your biases will reflect on you.

When doing this, it’s beneficial to remember that you should apply the same standards to yourself as you do to others. As one study notes:

“Whether we choose to define bias according to behavior or introspection, fairness dictates that we apply the same definition to others that we apply to ourselves. If we are unwilling to accept that our adversaries are free of bias because their thoughts were pure, we should not use this argument to defend our own freedom from bias. Likewise, if we think it is reasonable to accuse others of bias based on their actions, we should be prepared to consider our own actions as equally capable of betraying signs of bias.”

— From “Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot” (Pronin & Kugler, 2007)

In addition, you can use various general debiasing techniques to reduce the bias blind spot. For example, you can set optimal conditions for decision-making, and slow down your reasoning process. Similarly, you can create self-distance, for example by using self-distancing language and asking yourself “why do you think that you’re not biased?”, or by asking yourself whether someone else could be biased if they were in your situation, especially if they have a different stance than you.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that you likely won’t be able to eliminate the bias blind spot entirely. Specifically, although it’s possible to reduce the bias blind spot in some cases, this bias can persist to some degree even in the face of debiasing attempts.

Moreover, keep in mind that eliminating the bias blind spot and eliminating the biases that it hides are two separate things, so even if you manage to avoid the bias blind spot, that doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily also be able to eliminate your other biases, and the way in which they influence your thinking.

Overall, to avoid the bias blind spot, you should learn about this bias, accept that you’re susceptible to it, actively consider whether you might be experiencing it or other biases, account for the main causes of this bias, make sure that you apply the same standards to yourself as you do to others, and use general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process and making it explicit.

 

How to reduce the bias blind spot in others

There are several things that you can do to reduce the bias blind spot in other people, in order to help them become more aware of their biases and of how those biases influence their reasoning:

  • Explain what the bias blind spot is and how it affects people, potentially using relevant examples.
  • Explain that everyone is susceptible to the bias blind spot, including them, and including people who are intelligent and good at critical thinking.
  • Explain the main causes of this bias (naive realism, the introspection illusion, and ego-related needs), and ask if they think that these factors could currently be influencing them, and if not, then why not.
  • Ask them if it’s they think that it’s possible that they’re currently experiencing the bias blind spot or any other biases. Then, ask them to justify their answer, especially if they say “no”, and also ask them to consider what things in particular could potentially be biasing their reasoning.
  • Encourage them to assess their situation in a self-distanced manner, for example by considering whether someone else, and especially someone with an opposing stance than them, could be biased if they were in the same situation.
  • If you see that they experience a specific bias or have a specific issue with their reasoning, ask them about it or point it out directly.
  • Help or encourage them to use general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down their reasoning process and making it explicit.

However, as when trying to reduce your own bias blind spot, keep in mind that you likely won’t be able to eliminate other people’s bias blind spot entirely, and that you might not be able to reduce it at all. Furthermore, even if you manage to reduce people’s bias blind spot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to reduce the biases that it was hiding.

Overall, to reduce the bias blind spot in others, you should explain what this bias is and that everyone—including them—are susceptible to it, outline the causes of this bias and ask them if they might be influenced by these causes, ask them if they might be experiencing this bias and whether other people in their situation might experience it, point out specific issues with their reasoning, and help or encourage them to use general debiasing techniques.

 

Additional information

The origin and history of the bias blind spot

The bias blind spot was first described in a 2002 study titled “The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others”, published by Stanford University researchers Emily Pronin, Daniel Y. Lin, and Lee Ross in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Volume 28, Issue 3, pages 369–381).

However, as the researchers themselves note, related work has been done on the topic by other researchers, prior to that. For example, a 1999 study found that people tend to see themselves as more objective and less biased than they really are, as approximately 85% of participants indicated that they were “more objective than the average member of the group from which they were drawn”.

 

Related concepts

There are several concepts that are closely associated with the bias blind spot. These include:

  • The illusion of objectivity. The illusion of objectivity is a phenomenon whereby people “tend to see themselves as being more objective, more even-handed, more insightful and less biased than they really are”. However, relatively little work has been done directly on this phenomenon.
  • The better-than-average effect. The better-than-average effect (also known as the above-average effect and illusory superiority) is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their abilities and attributes and rate them as better than those of their peers.
  • The fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that causes people to underestimate the influence of environment-based situational factors on people’s behavior, and to overestimate the influence of personality-based dispositional factors. Essentially, this means that the fundamental attribution error causes people to assume that other people’s actions are less affected by their environment than they actually are, and to assume that those actions are more affected by their personality than they actually are.
  • Self-serving bias. The self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to take credit for their successes and positive behaviors by attributing them to dispositional factors, and to deny responsibility for failures and negative behaviors by attributing them to situational factors. In addition, the term “self-serving bias” is sometimes used to refer to any type of cognitive bias that is prompted by a person’s desire to enhance their self-esteem.
  • The egocentric bias. The egocentric bias that causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they examine events in their life or when they try to see things from other people’s perspective. Accordingly, the egocentric bias causes people to either underestimate how different other people’s viewpoint is from their own, or to ignore other people’s viewpoint entirely.
  • The psychologist’s fallacy. The psychologist’s fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when an external observer assumes that their subjective interpretation of an event represents the objective nature of that event. For example, the psychologist’s fallacy occurs when a psychologist assumes that their interpretation of why a patient acted the way that they did must be true.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The bias blind spot is a cognitive bias that causes people to be less aware of their own biases than of those of others, and to assume that they’re less susceptible to biases than others.
  • For example, the bias blind spot can cause someone to assume that other people’s political stance is influenced by various biases, whereas their own political stance is perfectly rational.
  • People experience the bias blind spot for three main reasons: naive realism, which is the tendency to assume that one’s perspective is objective, the introspection illusion, which is the tendency to over-value mental factors (as opposed to behavioral ones) when assessing one’s own thoughts and actions but not those of others, and ego-related needs, which prompt people to ignore their biases in order to feel better about themselves.
  • To reduce people’s bias blind spot you should explain what this bias is and that everyone—including them—are susceptible to it, outline the causes of this bias and ask them if they might be influenced by these causes, ask them if they might be experiencing this bias and whether other people in their situation might experience it, point out specific issues with their reasoning, and help or encourage them to use general debiasing techniques; you can also use these techniques, with some modifications, to reduce your own bias blind spot.
  • Keep in mind that it can be difficult to reduce this bias, and especially to eliminate it entirely, and that reducing it doesn’t necessarily reduce the biases that it was hiding.