The Egocentric Bias: Why It’s Hard to See Things from a Different Perspective

The Egocentric Bias

 

The egocentric bias is a cognitive 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.

For example, if you do something embarrassing, the egocentric bias can cause you to overestimate the degree to which other people are likely to notice it, because it can cause you to assume that others are as focused on your actions as you are.

Since the egocentric bias can strongly influence the way we process information and make decisions, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the egocentric bias, and see what you can do in order to account for it and reduce its influence.

 

Examples of the egocentric bias

A simple example of the egocentric bias appears when someone who is highly skilled in a certain field struggles to imagine the perspective of people who are unfamiliar with it. Similarly, another example of the egocentric bias appears when someone who strongly favors a certain political candidate assumes that almost everyone else must also favor this candidate too.

In addition, there are various other examples of how the egocentric bias can affect people. For instance:

  • The egocentric bias can cause someone who is giving a public talk to assume that his nervousness is more apparent to the audience than is actually the case, because it is so apparent to himself.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone who did something embarrassing to overestimate the likelihood that others will remember it, because she remembers it so well herself.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone to overestimate the amount of work that he contributed to a group project, because he is more focused on his own work than on the work that other team members did.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone to remember herself as having been the key player in a past event in which they only played a minor role, because she only saw the event from her own perspective.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone to assume that his colleagues all share his political beliefs and social values, because he is so focused on those beliefs that it’s difficult for him to imagine that others might see things differently.

Overall, examples of the egocentric bias appear in many areas of life. These examples all involve the tendency to over-rely on one’s own perspective, which means that, in many cases, the egocentric causes people to project their beliefs, desires, thoughts, and emotions onto other people, especially when those people are close to them. Accordingly, the egocentric bias can also hinder people’s ability to empathize with others, since it causes them to focus primarily on their own emotions, and to ignore how other people feel.

 

Related cognitive biases

The egocentric is considered to be the primary mechanism behind several related cognitive biases. These biases can be viewed as subtypes of the egocentric bias, meaning that they represent specific and notable ways in which the egocentric bias affects our thinking, and consequently they are sometimes referred to as egocentric biases or egocentric attribution biases.

Some notable egocentric biases are the following:

  • The illusion of transparency. The illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their thoughts and emotions are more apparent to others than is actually the case. This occurs primarily because of the egocentric bias, and specifically because our internal state is so readily available to us that we forget that it’s not as readily available to others.
  • The spotlight effect. The spotlight effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which they are observed and noticed by others, as well as the degree to which others care about the things that they notice about them. This occurs primarily because of the egocentric bias, and specifically because we are so focused on ourself, that we forget that other people are not as focused on us.
  • The false consensus effect. The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their opinions and beliefs are more common in the population than they actually are. This occurs primarily because of the egocentric bias, and specifically because we are so focused on our own opinions and beliefs, that we struggle to remember that other people might hold different ones.
  • The curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to account for the fact that others don’t know the same things that they do. This occurs primarily because of the egocentric bias, and specifically because we struggle to account for the fact that other people might not have knowledge that we do.

In addition, another closely related cognitive bias is the empathy gap, which causes people to struggle to understand mental states that are different from their present state, or to struggle to consider how such states affect people’s judgment and decision-making. Essentially, the empathy gap means that when people are in a certain mental state (e.g. happy or angry), they struggle to understand the perspective or predict the actions of someone who is in a different mental state, whether that person is their future self or someone else.

Finally, the term ‘egocentric bias’ is sometimes used to refer to similar phenomena, such as people’s tendency to judge the fairness of situations in favor of themself in contexts such as bargaining. In this case, the egocentric bias can also cause people to believe that situations that favor them are fair, even if they think that favoring others in a similar manner would be unjust. This means, for example, that people might think that they deserve to receive more than others when it comes to splitting positive outcomes, such as credit or profits, while they might also think that they deserve to receive less than others when it comes to splitting negative outcomes, such as blame or penalties.

Note: there is a related cognitive bias called the altercentric bias, which has a somewhat opposite effect than the egocentric bias, since it causes people’s judgment of their own emotional state to be influenced by other people’s emotions. People experience both these biases to varying degrees, and display different levels of egocentrism and altercentrism in different situations.

 

Why people experience the egocentric bias

The egocentric bias, like other cognitive biases, occurs due to the limitations of our cognitive system, and namely due to the imperfect way we process information.

Specifically, the egocentric bias occurs primarily due to the fact that we spend the vast majority of the time seeing things from our own perspective, so we tend to naturally examine and remember events primarily through our personal point of view. Accordingly, even when we realize that we should adjust our perspective to see things through other people’s eyes, we tend to anchor this new perspective to our own, and so we often fail to adjust from our original viewpoint enough to properly assess situations.

In addition, this phenomenon can also be attributed to our reliance on heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that we use to form judgments and make decisions quickly and easily, at the cost of sometimes making more mistakes. This means that our cognitive system finds it faster and easier to assume that other people’s perspective is similar to our own, than to try and assess what their perspective is actually like.

Finally, when it comes to how we remember past events, another reason why we tend to experience the egocentric bias is that our cognitive system generally arranges our memories around ourselves, since our own presence serves as a stable constant that stands at the center of our attention most of the time.

Overall, we experience the egocentric bias because of the imperfect way our cognitive system works, and primarily because we are generally so focused on our own perspective that we find it difficult to adjust from it when we try to assess other people’s perspective. In addition, in certain cases, the egocentric bias can be attributed to other factors, such as our use of mental shortcuts, and the way our memories are arranged.

Note: a closely related concept is theory of mind, which is the understanding that other people have perceptions, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different than your own, and that these things can influence people’s behavior. The egocentric bias occurs in situations where people need to use their theory of mind.

 

The influence of background factors

Various background factors affect the likelihood that a person will experience the egocentric bias, as well as the degree to which they will experience it and the way in which they will do so.

A person’s age, for example, can affect the likelihood that they will experience the egocentric bias, and one study found that adolescents and older adults display increased egocentricity compared to young and middle-aged adults. Similarly, the number of languages that a person speaks can play a role in a people’s predisposition to the egocentric bias, and one study found that bilinguals appear to be less likely to experience the egocentric bias than monolinguals.

Furthermore, a wide range of other factors has been found to influence people’s egocentric bias, including autism, mindfulness, engagement with literary fiction, and the type of information that a person is considering.

However, it’s important to note that while such background factors can influence people’s predisposition to the egocentric bias, almost every person experiences the egocentric bias to some degree in some cases.

 

How to reduce the egocentric bias

Reducing the egocentric bias can be useful in a variety of situations, since it can help people, including you, understand perspectives that are different from their own. As such, in the following sub-sections you will see a number of useful techniques that you can use to reduce the egocentric bias.

Note that the information here focuses on how to reduce your own egocentric bias. However, with some modifications, these techniques can also be used to reduce the egocentric bias that other people experience. For example, when it comes to considering alternative viewpoints in order to reduce the egocentric bias, you can either encourage other people to do this, or you can present them with those alternative viewpoints directly.

 

Develop awareness of the bias

Developing awareness of the egocentric bias can be helpful when it comes to reducing it. This can involve learning what this bias is, how it affects people, why it occurs, and when it’s likely to influence your thinking.

However, while awareness of the egocentric bias is important and beneficial, it’s generally insufficient when it comes to avoiding this bias completely, so you shouldn’t assume that simply being aware of this bias means that you won’t experience it.

 

Use self-distancing language

Using self-distancing language can reduce the egocentric bias by increasing your psychological distance from your own perspective. Using such language means, for example, that instead of thinking about yourself using the first-person pronoun (e.g. “how much did I contribute to the project?”), you should think about yourself using the second-person pronoun (e.g. “how much did you contribute to the project?”) or using your own name (e.g. “how much did John contribute to the project?”).

 

Increase your self-awareness

Increasing your self-awareness can reduce your egocentric bias by helping you become conscious of your innate tendency to focus on yourself. You can increase your self-awareness in various ways, and one study, for example, found that doing something as simple as sitting in front of a mirror while making a decision can increase your self-awareness and consequently reduce your egocentric bias. Other techniques could also work, as long as they accomplish the same thing, by helping you become actively conscious of yourself, and of your tendency to focus on your own perspective.

 

Consider alternative viewpoints

Considering alternative viewpoints can reduce the egocentric bias in some cases.

One way to do this is to visualize situations from someone else’s perspective, or from a generalized external perspective. For example, if you got into an argument with a friend, you can try to visualize the situation from their perspective, in order to try and understand why they acted the way that they did.

Similarly, another way to do this is to consider arguments that contradict your existing stance. For example, if you believe in a certain political stance, you can try to come up with reasons why an opposing stance might also be good. This will allow you to understand why people support that opposing stance, and will help you assess your own beliefs in a more rational manner.

Finally, note that when considering alternative viewpoints, it’s often best to actually talk to people who hold those viewpoints directly, rather than to try and imagine what their perspective is like. For example, if you only consume media that supports your political views, and you can’t understand how anyone else could possibly hold different views, then it can be beneficial to talk to people who do, or to consume media that supports those views.

 

Use general debiasing techniques

There are various general debiasing techniques that you can use to reduce the egocentric bias. These include, for example, slowing down your reasoning process and making it explicit, asking others for feedback on your reasoning, and creating favorable conditions for judgment and decision-making.

 

Caveats about reducing the egocentric bias

While the debiasing techniques that are listed here can help reduce the egocentric bias in some cases, they’re not guaranteed to work in every situation. Furthermore, even when these techniques work, they generally only help reduce the egocentric bias to some degree, rather than eliminate it entirely, and in general, the egocentric bias is relatively resistant to debiasing. Moreover, in some cases, reducing the egocentric bias doesn’t translate to an improved ability to make rational decisions, but does erroneously increase people’s confidence in their ability to do so.

Accordingly, when it comes to the egocentric bias, you should be wary when considering how effective your debiasing attempts are. If possible, you should carefully assess their effectiveness using appropriate information, such as feedback from relevant individuals, and in the absence of evidence, you should generally avoid assuming that you were able or will be able to eliminate this bias entirely.

 

Accounting for the egocentric bias without reducing it

In some cases, it can be beneficial to account for the influence of the egocentric bias, even if you can’t reduce it directly. For example, this can be beneficial when predicting someone’s actions in a specific situation, especially if you know that they’ve displayed this bias before.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The egocentric bias is a cognitive 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.
  • The egocentric bias can, for example, cause you to overestimate the degree to which others notice your mistakes, or to overestimate the degree to which others agree with your political stance.
  • The main reason why we experience the egocentric bias is that we are generally so focused on our own perspective that we find it difficult to adjust from it when we try to assess other people’s perspective.
  • There are several techniques that can help you reduce the egocentric bias in yourself and in others, including developing awareness of the bias, using self-distancing language, increasing self-awareness, considering alternative viewpoints, and slowing down your reasoning process.
  • The egocentric bias is relatively resistant to debiasing, so you should be wary when considering how effective your debiasing attempts are, and if possible, you should carefully assess their effectiveness using appropriate information, such as feedback from relevant individuals.