Mental Health

Understanding Your Bias

The basics on cognitive biases and increasing your objectivity.

The word “objectivity” is fundamentally defined as “Uninfluenced by emotions or personal bias.” The first thing I learned in journalism school was that no one is truly objective. Everyone has their own personal emotions and biases while being surrounded and influenced by people who have their own emotions and biases, and so on and so forth.

The most important thing to understand in regards to objectivity is that you are not and can’t be completely objective. Every single person in the world is subjective, or based in bias, in some way or another. The best way a person can combat this is by being aware of their personal biases, so that:

  1. They understand more about themselves and others.
  2. They can limit their bias and increase their objectivity.

“But Hudson,” you may wonder. “What’s so important about objectivity, especially if none of us can achieve it?” Great question. It’s vital in order for us to see things as they really are, or from a viewpoint other than your own.

Increasing objectivity is also the simplest way to limit many cognitive errors throughout several walks of life. With that, here are definitions and examples of some of the most common forms of bias, and how to begin overcoming them:

Confirmation bias: Paying attention to facts that confirm our existing beliefs while either ignoring or looking for flaws in facts that prove us wrong.

Example: Here is a sizable collection of Flat Earth literature. There are many people who hold these accounts to be scientific fact, despite any highly-regarded sources that disprove them.

Mitigation: This is extremely common, and I’ve definitely fallen victim to this a few times (though not in the context of the example). The way to mitigate this to be curious, and actively look for things that disprove your belief with an open mind.

Looking at studies that may prove you wrong is a lot of effort, which is why this bias is so common. But it’s either to have the bias, or do the work.

Optimism bias: This leads you to believe that you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.

Example: People believing that they are less likely to suffer from divorce or being in a car accident than average statistics indicate, and/or expecting to exceed the average life span.

Mitigation: By definition, we can’t all be above average. Optimism bias is shown to decrease if you compare yourself to people who are closer to you, but it also helps to simply be conscious of the bias.

Self-Serving bias: The tendency to attribute your actions to external causes while attributing other’s actions to internal causes.

Example: If an athlete makes an error on the field, or if a student fails a test, they tell themselves that the ball just slipped, or that the test was unfair. But if another athlete or student does the same, the former tells themselves that the latter is simply bad at the sport or class.

In an alternate situation, you could attribute your win over a test or another team to hard work, but someone else’s similar performance to dumb luck.

Mitigation: Keep a continuous reminder that you have control over your future and growth, and that your actions and internal factors drive what happens to you. If you simply work hard and practice, you’ll improve.

Once you are determined by your own internal actions and factors, you’ll realize that everyone else is as well.

Anchoring bias: Relying too heavily on the first piece of information you see. Many people, me included, have used an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments.

Example: Seeing a car listed for $80,000 and another for $20,000 makes the second one seem very cheap, but if you saw a $5,000 first and the $20,000 second it could make that same car seem expensive.

Mitigation: Understand that in most cases, there are other options that could be presented elsewhere. Also, a starting price on something might not be the objective value, but simply a quote based on a salesman’s preferences.

•••

General awareness is a good start, but there are other ways to help reduce these biases from your life: seeking multiple perspectives, reflecting on your own personal views and values, looking for more information and data, and challenging the status quo.

Become aware of your biases, and use conscious effort to overcome them.

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Also published on Medium.

Hudson Keown is a Junior at Arizona State University. His spare time...