How to Reduce Biases: Learn About Them

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in Library  Reducing biases, sometimes called debiasing, is not easy. I will post several articles and research-based ideas toward this goal. One basic way to try to reduce biases is to learn about them (Stalder, 2012).

But a first step may be to be open to the possibility that you might even be biased in the first place (see Pledge #1). Learning about biases might not go very far if you don’t think that what you’re learning even has a chance of pertaining to you. You might be able to define a bias but not notice it in yourself.

When I cover a bias in the classroom, I am sure to say that the bias occurs “on average.” Not everyone shows every bias, and some of us are more biased than others. But as true as that empirical statement is, there is a risk in my highlighting it, because most of us think we’re above average (in what’s called the above-average effect).

Businessman Bouncing Over Stock Chart  The problem is that if every bias occurs on average but most of us think we’re above average, then most of us might not think that the bias research pertains to us. We might think that a particular bias is something that “other people” have to worry about but not us. Most students even think they’re above average when it comes to avoiding the above-average effect (Friedrich, 1996). (!)

So try to be open to the possibility that you are average (at least at times) and that any particular bias might (might) pertain to you. (This advice goes for all of us, even social psychology instructors and psychotherapists.)

Under this condition of open-mindedness, knowing or learning about a bias probably has a better chance of reducing it across the people who learn about it. I’m not saying that you, a particular reader, are biased. But if the majority of readers try to be open in this way, then on average, biases might reduce overall.

Dr. Jamil Zaki once posted an article at his Scientific American blog, The Moral Universe, about how psychology research is “not about you” because it’s based on averages. I posted a comment saying whoa, maybe, but it might be about you, so let’s keep an open mind. Zaki generally seemed to agree in his reply (though he reasonably cautioned science writers not to overstate what a particular study meant for a particular reader).

(…To see this exchange, go to http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/moral-universe/2013/09/05/psychological-studies-are-not-about-you/)

A primary purpose of my blog is for people to learn about interpersonal and self biases. Then you might be more likely to catch yourself in a particular bias, such as the fundamental attribution error (FAE), hindsight bias, or above-average effect (three of the biases discussed so far at this site).

But learning about biases can also help you to identify potential biases in other people (though be careful when inferring others’ biases; sometimes perceptions of bias can be biased). And if you’re close enough to these other people, then perhaps you can try to make them aware of their potential biases, which can reduce biases. I will post a separate article (or set of articles) on whether or how to call people out in this way.

Family reading.  But if you’re a parent who has learned about bias research, then you can help your kids to catch or avoid certain biases. For example, most parents probably raise their kids not to be racially prejudiced. If you’re a teacher or therapist, then you have opportunity to help your students or clients, respectively, to reduce or avoid biases as well.

If you and your friends are all into social psychology, then you can call each other out on potential biases. I once had a student in social psychology who said that she and her friends had fun regularly calling each other out on the FAE. Cool. (Warning: May not be fun for everyone.)

So once you learn about a bias, you can try (if you’d like) to keep your eye out for it, in yourself and others.

———-

References:

Friedrich, J. (1996). On seeing oneself as less self-serving than others: The ultimate self-serving bias? Teaching of Psychology, 23, 107-109.

Stalder, D. R. (2012). A role for social psychology instruction in reducing bias and conflict. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 11, 245-255.

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