Can People be Unbiased?
In simple terms, bias is just another word for our brain recognizing patterns and making conscious and subconscious choices based on efficiency. These choices “re-wire” our brain (neuroplasticity, learning, memory), reinforcing the bias for or against something (for better or worse).
For example a caveman might develop the following biases: “don’t touch fire, fire bad”, “stick helpful to get apple; not climbing tree is easier and less dangerous”, and “don’t talk to strangers, strangers dangerous”. The more times a line of thinking works, or the more impactful the experience, the more ingrained a “bias” becomes.
Essentially, bias describes learning, memory, and instinct with the goal of efficiency. Generally, there are two important bias types: “cognitive” (in our heads, decision making bias) and “social” (group decision making bias).
We cover bias in detail below, but if your attention is waining I suggest a quick look at Business Insider’s 20 Cognitive Biases that screw up your decisions and 58 cognitive biases that screw up everything we do.
TIP: There are two types of bias, implicit bias (bias that is subconscious and is part of our natural internal process) and explicit bias (bias that is consciously applied). Learn more about the difference between implicit and explicit bias.
TIP: If you are coming from a business background, realize that bias applies to everything. It is a major point of contention in politics (see politically correct), and generally bias is also a technology we can use to our advantage (so bias isn’t just good or bad). If you think it is good or bad, or you only understand bias in one context, bare with me, read up, and watch the videos on this page.
Big Think on Bias. This video gives an overview of cognitive bias.
FACT: Every bit of information stored in your gray matter, all sensory memory in your long term memory, the stuff that makes you an individual, nature and nurture, everything from your DNA to this article, creates bias. Luckily bias isn’t bad or good, it just exists. Realizing “all humans are bias driven” is one of what I would consider the most fundamental steps to being successful. A close second is understanding the related neuroplasticity.
TIP: We can also express biases as fallacies (false beliefs), but keep in mind, a bias doesn’t have to be false to be a bias.
What Does it Mean That Everyone is Bias?
It’s important to understand that cognitive bias (the type we are talking about) is a broad subject that involves near everything related to cognition and patterns, both neurologically and psychologically: our belief systems, our behaviors, how we act to others, how our memory works, how we receive information, and our perception of ourselves. Meanwhile, bias in the way we present information to others is much more manageable.
Striking the right balance between under- and over-compensating for our natural bias in the way we process and present information is the key to getting as close as possible to being “truly unbiased”.
Paul Bloom: The Psychology of Everything. Paul Bloom looks at the psychology of everything. This video doubles as a great long-form introduction to human cognitive bias.
FACT: When we put time, energy, and other resources into something, we get “commitment bias” and the related “loss aversion bias” kicks in along with “sunk cost bias”. We can put the word “bias” next to just about any hardwired tendency toward a behavior. Bias is a very vast and broad subject.
What is Bias?
Bias is an inclination toward a perspective. It applies to almost every area of life: racial bias, bias in the food you are hungry for, a bias of what music you want to listen to, bias in research, bias in nature, bias in math. If something is deterministic (like humans and computers), it has a bias because it uses “algorithm” based on bias.
Neurologically our brains encode, store, recall, and connect information in a way that favors efficiency. Every connection that your brain makes is based on what has worked or what was experienced. Our instincts back this up, as we are also hardwired to make choices that create bias.
Is Bias Good or Bad?
Bias isn’t bad or good, it’s simply a side effect of our brain’s process of categorizing experience in a way that improves efficiency and increases the chances of survival and procreation.
This video works as a quick introduction to cognitive bias types.
TIP: Some bias are both “good” and “bad”, authority bias is a bias toward following authority. Great for team projects and national pride, not so great in WWII Nazi Germany. Learn about authority bias. Both authority and rebellion have corresponding biases.
Types of Bias
There are so many types of biases that we could create a whole site listing bias types. Let’s look at some large overarching types of biases.
Statistics Versus Cognitive Bias
- Cognitive Bias is any bias relating to behavior, biology, and psychology.
- Statistical bias is any bias relating the field of statistics and methods for accounting for it.
The bias we are focused on here is the cognitive bias. Neurology and statistics theory draw many parallels, but for now, let’s ignore everything math-based except the fact that bias is overcome in statistics by realizing it and compensating for it.
Hardwired Versus Learned
All bias can be put into two general groups. Hardwired bias and learned bias. A bias can also be a mix of the two, we are constantly learning so most things aren’t 100% hardwired.
- Hardwired Bias: Genetically programmed bias, nature not nurture.
- An example of hardwired bias: Babies are hardwired to know their mother will care for them and strangers can be dangerous. Babies show a natural bias toward their caretakers (their in-group) and against strangers (out-group).
- Learned Bias: Bias we learn, nurture not nature.
- An example of learned bias: Fire is hot. Get too close and you get warm, touch it and it burns you. Assuming that fear of fire isn’t hardwired, which it may be, a child might develop a bias toward being close to a fire, and a bias against getting too close.
Intentional Bias Versus Unintentional Bias
Some bias is largely subconscious and unintentional while other biases are conscious and intentional. Some, of course, are a mix of the two, such as perhaps the fire example above.
- Unintentional Bias: Subconscious bias, we react based on hardwired or learned bias. Or we simply act based on our past experiences and instincts in such a way that results in bias.
- An example of unintentional bias: Assuming a person in a suit works at a store due to the way they are dressed. Or, assuming a person agrees with all your political ideas because they liked a Facebook post you liked.
- Intentional Bias: Reacting to a situation based on conscious bias.
- An example of intentional bias: Not going down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood because you know that dark alleys and bad neighborhood aren’t safe. Or, assuming every Facebook post a person likes is “stupidity and lies” because you disagree with their politics.
Decision-making, Belief, and Behavioral bias | Social and Attribution Bias | Memory Bias
The three groups below break bias down into: how bias shapes you, how bias affects your social interactions, and how the way your memory affects bias.
- Decision-Making, Belief, and Behavioral Bias: Everything related to your belief system and, therefore, your decisions and behavior. People’s tendency to believe something, their corresponding behavior, and why it happens.
- Social Bias and Attribution Bias: Everything that relates to how you interact with other people. This includes groups of people and individuals and can include something like how you structure a business or organize a country politically.
- Example: In-group and out-group bias, which we talk about above, is the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.
- Memory Bias: Everything to do with memory. The brain reconnects the sensory information stored your neurons constantly (i.e. your brain reconnects memories all the time). Every time you remember your brain does it’s best to re-piece the memory. All the shenanigans that ensue given how memory works are memory bias.
- Example: The Google effect is when you forget something even though it’s important because it’s easy to Google. (Don’t forget our FactMyth-ism, but do google them often). This is a memory and not decision bias as your brain is choosing not to remember it, as it’s more efficient to store the information on the internet than it is your brain.
More Bias Types
Since bias is so fundamental to life there are many additional bias types, each explaining a different phenomenon. You can get lots of examples by going to Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases. You can see Wireless Philosophy’s YouTube channel for videos. We also cover more bias types on the site, see more factoids on a bias.
One of many types of cognitive biases explained. The self-serving bias you attribute your success to yourself, likewise, we can attribute negative things to others. Your brain is efficient, but it isn’t always trustworthy when gone unchecked.
How to Compensate for Bias
The best way to compensate for bias is to be aware that you have a bias in everything you do: which site you click on next, how much of a page you read, what you remember. Everything you’ll do today is influenced by bias. The way you present information and most of what you do and say help to reinforce bias in yourself and others.
Being aware of your bias, being accepting of your own bias, and being understanding and accepting of someone else’s bias is the key to transcending the negative aspects of bias.
In short, we must nurture optimism and understanding, or negative bias may take over without us ever realizing it.
TIP: People can’t avoid having biases, but information can be presented in an unbiased way. To present unbiased information present only the facts and pay special attention to the avoiding of constructing a list of facts that tells a bias narrative. It is easier said than done, but it is technically possible. Learn more about truth, lies, half-truths, and other forms of information.