Monday, 22 April 2019

Implicit Bias

cognitive bias
Implicit Bias

Time for Reflection

Don't we all, at times, fail to identify a logic to our many affinities in life - be it a political party, a sports team, an online network/ community/ group, a group of colleagues at workplace, a specific set of friends in personal life, a specific group of people from a particular religion/ caste/ country/ ethnicity, etc. ? Well, the list is endless and can go on and on !

The moot point here relates to the existence of our unexplainable affinity (as mentioned in the above paragraph) beyond the factors of right or wrong, success or failure, good or bad !

The above "prejudice" highlights the presence of a bias, known as "Implicit Bias".

Definition and Background

Implicit Bias refers to the attitudes, stereotypes or beliefs that impact our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. Explaining the definition further, Implicit Bias is when we, without our knowledge and awareness, start behaving in a pre-disposed manner towards a certain set/ group of people. Somewhere, our judgement gets impacted under the influence of Implicit Bias.

Implicit Bias is an involuntary process and may be based on any number of characteristics and more than 150 types of implicit biases exist.

The term "Implicit Bias" was coined by Mahzarin Banaji and Tony Greenwald in the 1990s. In 1995, they published their theory of implicit social cognition which asserted that individuals' social behaviour and biases are largely related to unconscious, or implicit, judgements.

Why Does Implicit Bias Occur ?

Whether we believe it or not, like it or not, each one of us is susceptible to implicit bias and that's because of the basic nature of our brain. The brain takes in information and starts forming associations and making generalizations. So, its these "mental connections (associations and generalizations)" that are responsible for "Implicit Bias" in us. Implicit Bias is found throughout the brain, whether amygdala, temporal lobes or frontal cortex.

Lets understand how these "mental connections" lead us into imbibing implicit bias
  • Brain seeks patterns and association which impacts our disposition towards people in social situations
  • Brain seeks shortcuts - Faced with huge volume of information/ data, the brain tries to simplify the information by creating shortcuts to sort the information/ data
  • Our Beliefs and Value System, which is an outcome of our experiences(direct and indirect) and our social conditioning 

Indicators/ Symptoms of Implicit Bias

The biggest indicator is when we unconsciously start attributing a set of characteristics to a certain set/ group of  people.

When we become too judgmental about a person/ set of people based solely on one interaction and we let this first impression influence our disposition.

Impact of Implicit Bias

"Implicit Bias" has a tendency to trigger dominos effect, where any existing implicit bias at a micro level could create a cascading effect and reach a macro dimension, which could impact the global order and render it disorderly. The "social media" world that we live in today has the potential to magnify the impact of implicit bias manifold and create an unprecedented damage.  

At a personal and self level, the bias dents the personality severely and blocks the opportunities of growth. A restricted perception and disposition halts the growth of the individual.

Implicit Bias is not just confined to personal self but affects a whole range of setups like educational/ learning institutions, workplace, social gathering and legal systems. Within educational institutions, implicit bias primarily exist around skin type and gender type, with the key issues being behavioral and subject choices/ preferences.  

Talking about the impact of the bias at Workplace, the bias is chiefly evident in areas like 
  • Core HR tasks which include Recruitment, Hiring and Retention. The presence of Implicit Bias could render the claims of being an Equal Opportunity Employer and providing a diverse and inclusive workplace/ environment as totally baseless, resulting in severly damaging the  reputation of the organisation  
  • Interpersonal relationships in the organisation, both at inter-team and intra-team level. This ultimately impacts the teamwork and collaboration, which happen to be the backbone of any flourishing organisation.  
It is also worth noting that a lot of modern day problems (terrorism, apartheid) that pose a great threat to world peace and order are in some way a manifestation of implicit bias. 

Real-Life Examples of Implicit Bias

There are plenty of real-life examples of implicit bias occurring in setups like classrooms, workplace, legal system, etc. but one of the most popular (rather viral) is about an incident that occurred on April 12, 2018 at a Starbucks outlet in Philadelphia, where two black men got arrested after refusing to leave, on being told to do so by a Starbucks employee. This incident, highlighting implicit bias, reached such proportions that Starbucks had to issue an apology for its' treatment to these two black men. 

The details of the incident may be read at the following links 

Overcoming/ Addressing Implicit Bias

2 important things about Implicit Bias
  • Even the aware, educated or socially conscious have biases
  • Implicit Bias exist/ operates at an unconscious level and so difficult to access
Now, let's look at the possible ways to mitigate the impact/ risks of Implicit Bias
  • First and foremost, becoming aware of the Implicit Bias is the starting point to deal with it. One of the best way to become aware of Implicit Bias is through the IAT (Implicit Association Test), a test developed by Banaji and Greenwald in 1998, to confirm their hypothesis regarding their theory of implicit social cognition. IAT was designed to assess the strength of unconscious biases through a computer program. The test is available online at

It may be noted that like with every test, even this test has limitations but is still a good bet for the purpose.
  • For addressing the bias at an individual level, the following could help
    • by reducing our reliance on generalizations and stereotypes
    • Avoid being judgemental by relying less on "gut feeling" and/ or "intuition" and more on "facts" 
    • Seeing/ Understanding people as individuals rather than as part of an identified group by seeking personal information about the person in terms of interests, skills, and other personality traits
    • Counter Stereotypical Imaging which refers to going against the mental picture that we hold in our mind for a particular group/ set of people
    • Giving time for the interaction to unfold organically by attempting a positive interaction  
  • For addressing the bias at an institutional/ organisational level, the following could help
    • Building Anonymity in the recruitment and hiring process
    • Walking the Talk when it is about Inclusivity, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. Seeking Commitment from every employee on the seamless integration of the above 3 in their routine would build more trust among them (employees) 
    • Building an organisational culture comprising of values and mission that capture the essence of mitigating the existence of implicit bias could turn out to be very effective if every employee could align to them by heart
    • Ensuring that every essential gathering comprises of as many diverse participants as possible 
Living in a technology driven VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, where information/ data rules the roost, the best defense we can build up against Implicit Bias is not to over-react towards any "emotion evoking" piece of data/ information. Rather, if we just let the dust settle first, and then provide our reaction, it is bound to be a more balanced and rational reaction.

When "First Impression" starts creating a "lasting impression", it's time so start looking beyond for more !

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Hindsight Bias

Time for Reflection

those "I told you so" and "I knew it all along" moments when you played Nostradamus (A famous French astrologer and physician of the 16th century who became very popular for his various prophecies) but only after the event had already occurred

(the times) when you thought that the predictor in you knew the outcome of a particular event all along but you disclosed it only after the occurrence of the event

watching that thrilling movie or reading that book where after the climax got disclosed, you believed you already knew the end / finish of the movie/ book 

What the above highlights is the presence of overestimation and overconfidence in self and that is quite indicative of  a bias referred to as "Hindsight Bias".

Definition and Background

Hindsight Bias refers to the "tendency people have to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome correctly that could not have been possible predicted". Once an outcome of an unforeseen event has come, people tend to believe the event as predictable, despite having no objective basis for

The phenomenon was first described and studied in 1970s by psychologists while investigating the errors in human decision making. The research on Hindsight Bias started with Fischhoff (1975). During the late 70s, Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff began studying how scientific results and historical events seemed so predictable to people when, in fact, they had no idea about them.   

Why Does Hindsight Bias Occur ?

According to one theory, Hindsight Bias is a natural coping mechanism that prevents us from facing embarrassment and disappointment. 

Another theory says that the bias is hardwired in out system

Also, the actual outcomes are easier to comprehend and remember than the many which did not materialise.

 Indicators/ Symptoms of  Hindsight Bias 

  • Memory Distortion which refers to various memory errors about remembering an earlier opinion, judgement or prediction  
  • Distorting information by fixating on the final outcome
  • Holding strong belief in the inevitability of the event ("It had to happen")
  • Applying Ego-boosting strategies at having predicting the outcome correctlty
  • Building False assumption/ belief about having great intuitive abilities   
  • Overestimating the accuracy of our own prediction

Impact of Hindsight Bias

The bias impacts us negatively in many ways. Some of them are as below

  • Makes us less accountable for our decisions 
  • Builds over-confidence in us which affects our ability to make decisions
  • Prevents us from learning through our experience 
  • Builds a tendency of criticising the decision-making ability of others
  • Inculcates high risk-taking ability

Real-Life examples of Hindsight Bias

Research in Hindsight Bias provides ample of empirical evidence about the bias's existence in many areas of our life such as Sports, Politics, Education, Military, Workplace and Healthcare.  

Overcoming/ Addressing Hindsight Bias

  • Reminding ourself that past may not always determine future and we are not fully equipped to predict an outcome accurately all the time 
  • Keeping a journal to record our prediction so as to help us do a comparison of our prediction once an event has occurred. This will aid in reflection and help with gaining insight to refine decision-making skill 
  • Base decision/ predication on data analysis and not solely on intuition or gut feeling
  • Consider alternative outcomes to dig deep into your approach to making decisions/ predictions
  • Analyse the outcome with your previous prediction (before event occurrence) and this will help develop a framework/ strategy for future predictions. 

Things may soon "crumble and fall" if your live with the attitude of "i know it all" !

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Groupthink Bias

Time For Reflection

Remember those moments of internal disagreement with your friends, family, colleagues, boss during some important discussion/ brainstorming/ team meeting/ project presentation, when you begged to differ but still chose to remain silent, simply to appear aligned with the rest of them ?

Well, such a behaviour is quite common, where inspite of being a (rational) contrarian and fully  aware of the negative consequences/ repercussions of an irrational choice or decision, we still tend to approve of that choice or decision (by conforming to it) when taken in a group setting.

This type of behaviour is indicative of the existence of a bias known as "Groupthink".

Definition and Background

The word "Groupthink" was coined by William H. Whyte in 1952 in an article in Fortune Magazine.

Irving Janis, a social psychologist from Yale University is credited with studying the bias. He addressed it in his book in 1972.  As per Janis, Groupthink is defined as "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, and when the members' striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action".

Decoding the definition further, Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which our need to conform with the group outdoes our need to act rationally and we tend to go with the groups' decision.

Why Does Groupthink Bias occur ?

There are many reasons for Groupthink to occur. Few of the reasons are

At group level, the reasons could be
  • presence of an overbearing group leader
  • internal/ external pressures on the group to take good and faster decision
At an individual's level, the reasons could be 
  • strong desire to maintain the cohesiveness of the group
  • intent to ensure harmony within the group
  • to avoid playing the odd one out and being an outcast
  • strong belief in the rules and morality of the group
  • save time in decision making by avoiding voicing opinion, suggestion, idea, etc.
  • not fully knowledgeable about the topic of discussion and therefore unsure about the rationality of one's own choice/ decision 

Indicators of Groupthink Bias
At the outset, the unanimity in decision making is the best indicator of Groupthink.

Further, Janis has identified eight different symptoms (indicators) of  Groupthink and they are as mentioned below:
  • Illusion of invulnerability - complacency kicks in within the group leading to an attitude of over optimism and risk-taking. As a result of their earlier successes and great bonding within the group, the group starts to feel insulated from any dire consequence irrespective of the choice they make or the decision they take.
  • Belief in inherent morality of the group - Because of the presence of extreme cohesiveness within the group, a false sense of belief about being morally correct always, creeps in which further leads to an illusion of rational decision-making.  
  • Collective Rationalization - the false sense of self-belief prompts the group to overlook any warning signals whatsoever and this leads the group to never questions their existing assumptions or beliefs.
  • Out-Group Stereotypes - The group members who do not share the same beliefs, ideas and opinions of the "in-group" are stereotyped as "out-group", considered to be outside the group
  • Self-Censorship - Members who have any sort of fear or phobia withhold sharing their views, ideas or counter-arguments
  • Illusion of Unanimity - Even when members prefer to remain silent instead of sharing their POV (point of view), this silence is construed as their acceptance of the group's decision
  • Direct Pressure on Dissenters - The member who don't agree with the group's views are coerced and ultimately compelled to agree to the group's views.
  • Self-Appointed "Mindguards" - There are members of the group who take up the task of filtering information so that no contradictory views and opinions reach the group 

Impact of Grouthink Bias

The key negative impacts of the bias are 

  • Irrational decision-making in the absence of multiple perspective 
  • Compromise on freedom of Individual thinking and expression 
  • Operating in comfort zone
  • No new perspective or POV (Point of View) encouraged 
  • Adversely affects the morale and confidence of members who hold contrary views which further leads to dissatisfaction, frustration and stress
  • Create internal friction as the members who hold a differing view may come together and create a mini-group within
  • The group becomes overly obsessive and protective about their views and opinion which leads to insulation from others outside the group. This further impacts the group's intent and ability to collaborate 
  • Absence of creative thought process
The key positive impacts 

  • Decisions tend to get taken faster 
  • The group never falters on the deadlines
  • Strong cohesiveness which leads to lot of trust among group members

Real-life Examples of Groupthink

Human history is replete with many incidents that highlight the presence of Groupthink. Some of the popular ones are as mentioned below
  • Pearl Harbour attack, 1941 - Inspite of intercepting warning messages related to Japan planning to attack, the U.S. army did not pay any heed to the signs and signals. The U.S. soldiers and the authority at Pearl Harbour engaged in groupthink. This resulted in faulty decision making by ignoring the evidence of imminent danger under the assumption that Japan won't attack because ultimately they would get defeated by U.S. army 
  • Bay of Pig Invasion - In 1961, about 1500 exiled Cubans, trained and financed by CIA attempted an invasion of Cuba from sea in the Bay of Pigs to overthrow Fidel Castro. The attempt was a complete fiasco. It is believed that U.S. President Kennedy gave a go-ahead to the mission as a result of groupthink 
  • Collapse of Swissair, 2001 - The collapse of Swissair a.k.a The Flying Bank, as it was fondly called, is attributed to 2 key symptoms - 1. Illusion of  invulnerability and 2. Belief in inherent morality of the group
  • Collapse of Nokia and Blackberry as phone giants - Both Nokia and Blackberry were phone giants in their own segment but presence of symptoms like illusion of invulnerability, belief in inherent morality of the group and collective rationalization led to their fall.

Overcoming/ Addressing Groupthink Bias

Exploring objectives, alternatives and encouraging ideas hold the key to addressing the Groupthink Bias. Some of the ways it could be achieved are as mentioned below:

  • Encourage discussion and debating within the group 
  • Implement multi-perspective approach to decision-making/ problem solving through tools like "Devil's Advocate" and "Six Thinking Hats". These tools can bring about critical evaluation aspect in decision making
  • Conformity could be outdone by inviting members first to share their views and opinions prior to the sharing of views/ opinions by the leader 
  • To invite an impartial opinion, every group member should discuss the group's ideas with someone trustworthy outside the group 
  • Leader should be absent from many meetings to avoid influencing the decision-making by group members
  • Experts from outside be invited to ensure an impartial assessment of the discussion during meetings.
  • Encourage creative and critical thinking in the group
  • Creating mini-groups during decision making helps capture all the relevant viewpoints

Inclusivity always pays rich dividends !

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Fading Affect Bias

Fading Affect Bias

cognitive bias


Let's ponder a bit on the below :

Between the "pleasant" and "unpleasant" significant events from your life, which one are you able to feel more of whenever remembered/ recalled ? 

From a "not-so-pleasant" significant event that occured in your life which could be something like a long-awaited vacation, a job/ business opportunity missed, an argument/ interaction that had life impacting implications, or any other significant event from life, again, what are you able to feel more/ most whenever remembered/ recalled ? 

Well, if you have never given the above a thought, then most likely your first guess would be that you would recall/ remember more of the "unhappy memories" rather than the "happy memories" but to your surprise, the results from the various studies and research in the area proves out to be contrary, which means it's the "happy memories" that we remember/ recall more of !

Well, the above discussion is an indication of a bias known as "Fading Affect". Let's explore it further 

Definition and Background

The definition of the Fading Affect Bias goes like this - "The intensity of affect (feelings) associated with negative memories fades faster than the affect (feelings) associated with positive memories." Elaborating it further - the affect prompted by autobiographical event recall typically decreases in intensity as time from the original event increases. But, the extent to which the intensity fades is different for positive events and negative events. The intensity of the emotions felt during event recall as compared to event occurence, tends to fade faster for negative events than for the positive events. This differential fading of affect over time between negative and positive event is referred to as the "Fading Affect Bias" (FAB).  

So, between the time of the actual happening of the event and its recall, the memories start fading for both the negative and positive event but when it comes to feelings associated with these events/ memories, then we see a difference in fading. The feelings associated with negative memories tend to fade faster than the feelings associated with positive memories. 

(Autobiographical Event/ Memory - Simply defining, any significant event that makes our personal history or timeline is an autobiographical event and any memory related to that is termed as autobiographical memory). 

The earliest reference to this bias (Fading Affect Bias) is of Cason (1932) whose data suggested that emotions prompted by positive event maintained more of their intensity across time compared to emotions prompted by negative event.

The "modern era" of FAB research is attributed to Walker et al. (1997) whose key findings were that humans may become selective in their memory of the event and certain memory may fade off but the emotions related to the event remains intact.

Further research on FAB is attributed to Ritchie et al. (2009) whose study identified four possible trends pertaining to memory - Fixed Affect, Fading Affect, Flourishing Affect and Flexible Affect. The study revealed that Fading Affect was more prominent (51%) as compared with the other three when it came to negative occurences, which means that Fading Affect came into play during memories related to negative events.  

Why Does Fading Affect Bias (FAB) occur ?
  • Humans are always motivated to view their lives in a positive light 
  • Recalling of positive events is generally stronger than that of negative events and emotional response prompted by positive memories often tend to be stronger than the emotional response prompted by negative memories. 
  • Evidence also highlight that over time, we may tend to start perceiving even the negative events in a more positive way.
  • Humans are always seeking happiness 

Benefits of Fading Affect Bias (FAB)

FAB impacts us positively in many ways such as 

  • Maintaining a positive outlook towards life 
  • Building a healthy self-awareness and self-esteem 
  • Exhibiting good Coping Skills to deal with new experiences
  • Developing attitude of seeing the best in any situation. 

More About Fading Affect Bias(FAB)

  • Not every person may exhibit FAB. People suffering from dysphoria (mild depression) may perceive their lives to be more negative than the lives of others. In the case of people having dysphoria, the memory is less detailed.
  • emotions prompted by event memories are not always the same as the emotions prompted by the actual event 
  • memories of the event are forgotten whereas the accompanying emotions persist

Seeking the silver lining in every cloud !

Friday, 12 April 2019

Egocentric Bias

Egocentric Bias

egocentric bias

Reflection Time

Well, Aren't we all fond of listening about "self (me, myself)" and don't we all enjoy being the center of attraction or attention always?

I am sure the answer to the above is an emphatic "YES". 

Each one of us, to some extent, is a bit of narcissist, whether we accept it or not, whether we like it or not and it's not going to take much time and effort to recall an instance/ few instances 
  • when you felt your contribution in the collaborative activity was much more than anyone's else
  • when you thought that your POV (Point of View) could withstand the test of time and was the only fool proof approach/ method
  • when you felt that your feelings and behaviour was as apparent to everyone else as to you.
  • when you felt obsessed with your opinion/ advice and couldn't fathom existence of any contrary opinion and advice.
plus numerous other instances when you felt/ thought that you were the cynosure of all eyes and that every discussion happening around was about "you".

The above pointers are a clear testimony of our inherent desire to feel "special" and this is exactly what makes up the bias known as "Egocentric Bias".

Definition and Background

Simply put, "Egocentric Bias" is the tendency to rely too heavily on one'e own perspective/ POV (point of view) when examining or remembering events in our life. In this bias, we tend to develop an inflated sense about ourself and suffer from a constant need to satisfy our own ego.

The term "Egocentric Bias" was coined in 1980 by Anthony Greenwald, a psychologist at Ohio State University. He described it as a "phenomenon in which people skew their beliefs so that what they recall from their memory or what they initially understood is different than what actually occured".

Indicators of  Egocentric Bias

Few of the key indicators are 

    egocentric bias
  • when we start experiencing life through a "self-centered" filter and start assuming that every discussion happening around is about me and that people are paying as much attention to "me" as i am paying to "myself"
  • when we start projecting our beliefs, desires, thoughts and emotions onto other people, especially those who are close to us
  • when we start developing a "attention grabbing" or "credit grabbing" tendency where we don't leave any opportunity to exaggerate our contribution to something and start putting ourself in the front as the most "deserving" person
  • when we start seeing ourself as target of other's action, which is not the reality though

Why/ How does Egocentric Bias occurs ?

Studies show that it's far easier for people to remember information is it has reference to them and that's precisely why we tend to recall information that has reference of  "me" or "myself". A case in point is "episodic memory" which we are able to recall with ease because of its autobiographical characteristic. 

Egocentric Bias occurs as a result of the reality that every individual has sole access to a vast amount of information about themselves which others are not aware of even and it is this vastness that impacts our perception and perspective (views and opinions) on various issues, situations and experiences. 

So, "EGO" sits pretty much at the center of the egocentric bias and plays a guiding role during memory access and recall.

Impact of Egocentric Bias

Egocentric bias influences the way we process and remember information and adversely impacts our personality in many ways, both personally and professionally. Whether its about demonstrating good leadership, collaboration or  coaching/ mentoring others, egocentric bias has a real impact on these. 

Some of the ways it impacts us are mentioned below:

  • leads to "memory distortion", a neurological phenomenon of making events larger than life in our mind, in our bid to feed our ego.
  • blurs the gap between reality and illusion
  • creates "illusion of control" over events in our life
  • hinders our ability to empathise 
  • develops in us a tendency to undermine others' POV (point of view) or their contribution to the task 
  • becomes difficult for them to develop a multi-perspective view to the situation which leads to poor decision making 
  • mental health issues that may result from exaggeration or undermining

Overcoming/ Addressing Egocentric Bias

  • More self-awareness - Regular SWOT analysis to help us gain insight into our weaknesses also, thereby establishing the fact that there's always a scope for improvement in some areas of our personality  
  • Developing "Perspective-Taking", maybe using the tools like Six Thinking Hats, Devil's Advocate, which throw open multiple POVs to choose from through a more rational approach
  • Emotional Intelligence - Another way to build more self-awareness and also awareness about others. This could help with becoming a better leader and a collaborator too
  • Being able to identify the "blind spots"
  • Focus on networking with others and getting involved in projects involving groups/ teams, with diverse expertise/ experience. This  may generate a tendency to work collaboratively in diversity and also generate memories involving others, and not just self.
  • Practicing gratitude helps become grateful to things and people outside "me/ myself". Keeping a journal could be the easiest way to do so.

Well, the timing is always right to break this illusion of  (you/ me) being the center of the Universe and come to terms with reality !

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Distinction Bias

Distinction Bias

Reflection Time

What did you do when you went shopping for a big, new TV that fitted your requirement and budget pretty well but ended up comparing it with other high end TVs that were costlier/ slightly costlier than the one you had earlier selected for buying ?

What did you do when you went to buy a smartphone that matched the specifications you needed but ended up considering the other costlier smartphone with better features ?

What did you do when you had two offers for job - one that matched the profile and salary that you  wanted and the other one which had an entirely different profile but the offering a 10-15 percent hike in salary ?

I believe, in all the above mentioned instances, for most of the time we ended up buying the costlier product,  even when there was no marked difference in what we went looking for and we could have safely opted for our earlier choice. Now, the real food for thought here is - why did we end up buying the costlier option instead of the one that matched my need pretty well ? Well, the answer is that we ended up taking decision under the influence of bias known as "Distinction Bias" and instead of "best fit", got lost in the "problem of plenty" !


Distinction Bias is the tendency to over-value the effect of small quantitative differences while comparing options. This means that when we compare similar options/ choices, we often place a higher emphasis on inconsequential quantitative differences and pick an option that won't actually maximise our level of happiness/ satisfaction. 

Just Consider that on day you went out to buy some fresh fruits and just when you were about to select, say a set of fresh apples, the fruit seller presented you with another set of apples which just had an additional "international quality" sticker on it. Both the set of apples were fresh and similar but still you ended up buying the set with sticker on it because of the assumption that it would turn out to be better than the one you had selected earlier. Now, this is a scenario where "distinction bias" came into play and affected your judgement.

Likewise, there are plenty of instances which we may be able to recall from our daily routine where "distinction bias" affected our ability to make the best decision. 

Identifying the Occurence of the Bias

The best indicator is being hypersensitive to the smallest/ minor differences among the options presented to us. Another indicator is when we start placing too much qualitative value on small differences (between two similar options) that by itself have little value  

Why & How Distinction Bias Occurs ?

Humans are bad at predicting how quantitative differences affect happiness and we tend to place a higher emphasis on inconsequential quantitative differences that doesn't actually maximise our happiness. 

"Distinction Bias" occurs when we extrapolate the quantitative differences between two options in a
direct comparison. The moment we start placing the options together to compare the differences is when distinction bias starts creeping in our judgement and decision making.

The concept of "Distinction Bias" was introduced by Hsee and Zhang (2004) in a research paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to explain why people evaluate objects differently when evaluating them jointly, as opposed to separately.

To further elaborate on the concept, let's understand the 2 modes that humans operate in. They are:  

  1. Comparison Mode - comes into play when choosing and makes us sensitive to small differences between options
  2. Experience Mode - comes into play when living our decision and when there are no options to compare our experience to

So, when in comparison mode, we are making choices through Joint Evaluation (JE) where we place the options together and note their differences. On the other hand, when in experience mode, our actual experience is happening through Single Evaluation (SE), which refers to the option that matches our requirement completely.

When Joint Evaluation (JE) preferences get imposed on Single Evaluation (SE), that's when the distinction bias happens and this shift in perspective between evaluation and experience(use) creates the disconnect.

Impact of Distinction Bias

  • When Distinction Bias happens, it causes us to shift our focus away from the issue to be addressed/ problem to be solved and instead focus on evaluating the minute differences of the  options presented to us.
  • Builds in us a tendency to over predict the value and happiness that a choice can bring
  • Can lead to "analysis paralysis" where we lose the ability to analyse things properly 
  • Undermine our ability to make best decision

Real-Life Occurence of Distinction Bias 

The Distinction Bias occurs, both at an individual level and an institutional level. Mentioned below are few examples of their occurrence

  • Distinction Bias occurs regularly during our shopping experience and marketers exploit this tendency of ours to their advantage.
  • During many of our life-changing decisions, like choosing a job offer and even choosing a life partner
  • Vendor selection where we tend to pitch them against each other to outdo each others' offering 

Overcoming/Addressing Distinction Bias

Few simple ways to address this bias are

  • Stop comparing and stop playing "spot the difference". Instead focus on giving weightage and priority to each option at the singular level
  • Get out requirements and needs in place first and then stick to it all through the process of decision making
  • Practice the concept of "Satisficing", which refers to a course of action meant to satisfy the minimum requirements necessary for achieving a goal.
  • "Hedonic Adaptation", where we can curb our urge for achieving more pleasure through a so called better lifestyle.

Let the "problem of plenty" not undermine the value and happiness that a singular could bring !

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias 

Reflection Time 

Which is your preferred political party ? Which candidate would you vote for in the coming elections?

Which is your favourite car brand ?

Which brand do you always shop for ?

Which is your preferred school/ college/ university for sending your kids to ?

Which is your favourite place for vacation ?

Well, the above list can go on and on and we can keep listing our most preferred choice. 

But ever wondered, what makes a certain brand or a certain choice our preferred brand/ choice always ? - Well, the answer is that we don't let it become anything else, neither second/ third choice, nor a non-preferred choice inspite of any contrary evidence, empirical or otherwise !

This tendency of ours to hang on to our preference/ choice under any circumstance, is an indicator of presence of a bias known as "Confirmation Bias". When afflicted with this bias, we just don't let go of our affiliation to our preference/ choice.


Perhaps, the earliest definition of "Confirmation Bias" could be attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher of the 16th century who stated the following:

"The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate". 

Simplifying the above for the sake of better understanding, the "confirmation bias" is our tendency to interpret and infer new information in such a manner that it aligns with our existing beliefs and dispositions. When affected with confirmation bias, we tend to filter out any new information that contradicts our existing view and only look for evidence that stand in support of our existing beliefs.

The term "confirmation bias" was coined by English psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason (1924 - 2003), who, in 1960s performed an experiment, popularly known as Wason's Rule Discovery Test he challenged the subjects to identify a rule applying to a numbers specific problem/ task.The test proved that most people do not try to at all to test their hypothesis (most of the subjects established the same hypothesis) critically but rather to confirm them. Most of the subjects in the test tried solutions to prove their hypothesis and very few tried solutions to disprove their hypothesis. 

Identifying the Occurence of the Bias

A clear indication of the occurence of the bias is when we 

  • start ignoring the contradictory evidence (to our existing beliefs) as exception or special case
  • start seeking information that upholds our beliefs and start ignoring the information that challenges them
  • start interpreting every information from our own viewpoint 

Why this Bias Occurs ?

Perhaps, few key reasons could be 

  • Selective Attention - a process in which people react to certain bits of information or stimuli and not others
  • Preference to remain in Comfort Zone - Challenging the existing beliefs would mean moving out of the comfort zone to gather and apply evidence to prove contrary of our existing beliefs.
  • To appear as Intelligent, where the entire exercise of proving things against our existing set of beliefs could put question mark on our intelligence  

Impact of Confirmation Bias
  • Perhaps the biggest impact this bias has on us is in restricting our ability to develop/ adopt multiple perspectives/ viewpoints during decision making
  • limiting our ability to absorb/ process new set of information.
  • the bias leaves us bound even in case of trivial, simple and unimportant tasks/ choices
  • results in building/ developing a narrow-minded or a biased-view
  • prevents us from looking at situations objectively

Real - Life Occurence of Confirmation Bias 

The confirmation  bias is clearly evident in areas like religion, politics, economy, healthcare, journalism and human relations. Some examples of the same are as mentioned below
  • Journalism - in the era of "fake news" and "paid news", it may not come as a surprise to us as to how "confirmation bias" is being used to accentuate our existing beliefs/ choices
  • Medicine - here it may occur on both sides, whether practitioner or patient
  • Inter-personal relationship where every action is perceived or twisted to support our own existing expectations/ beliefs

Overcoming/ Addressing Confirmation Bias 
  • Write down our existing set of beliefs and try to find disconfirming evidence
  • Practice "Falsification", where we tend to find evidence against our existing hypothesis/ beliefs
  • Being curious about knowing/learning opposing views to our own beliefs and listening intently to others' views  
  • Avoid sticking to any one opinion and develop new and divergent opinions
  • Be emotionally distant from the issue 

Always remember to give proper weightage to the information that is warranted by evidence