Whatever It Is, I’m Against It: The Unreasonable Reasoning Behind Bias

If you’ve ever played lawn bowls (and who hasn’t?), then you know the balls tossed down the bowling green are called biased balls — in that they are unevenly weighted, causing them to roll at a curve. In other words, they’re one-sided.

From the French biais, bias means slanted, or going against the grain. And whether it’s applied in religion, politics, ethnicity or lifestyle, it has filled every corner of our society.

Modern-day social psychologists call it illusory superiority, which is when people, due to insecurity, ignorance, prejudice, arrogance or pride believe they are cooler, smarter and sexier than anyone else in the room.

For those cool, smart and sexy people, here are some beloved biases that are sure to mess with your head and ruin your day.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect:

One thing that makes intelligent people intelligent is that when they don’t know something, they say so.

But when this bias is in full effect, humility is in short supply.

Named after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, DKE occurs when individuals who, despite having little if any knowledge of a subject, consider themselves experts. And, armed with unwarranted confidence and hubris, view their opinions as superior to others.

Trapped in this bubble of delusion they’re unable to comprehend their own incompetence or acknowledge the genuine skills in others.

A prime example would be the delusional contestants we see on American Idol or America’s Got Talent. They strut in cocksure, then proceed to butcher a classic tune. Convinced they’ve given a flawless performance, they’re baffled — and often incensed — by Simon’s scathing criticism.

Another study of this bias tested 100 people in the areas of grammar, humor and logic.

When asked how they felt they did on the test, those who scored a 12 (or lower) estimated their score to be a 62 (or higher).

David and Justin rest their case.

The Confirmation Bias:

When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture the facts into their service!

Taken from Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it beautifully illustrates how sometimes playing devil’s advocate can be hard as hell.

It’s human nature to favor one side of an argument over another. And equally so to seek information that further justifies that position.

But just because it’s natural doesn’t make it right.

A student is asked to write a paper on the history of guns in America. The student is an avid hunter, grew up around guns, and was taught that any mention of “gun control” was a direct threat to his second amendment rights. Because of this, he sought only research that validated his viewpoint. And as a result, his paper was one-sided, lacking valid positions and facts.

A day trader hears a rumor that a company might be going under. He thinks if he can get his clients to sell off their stock, they’ll make money and he’ll be a wizard on Wall Street. He checks online, concentrating solely on articles that mention the rumor (of which there are many) while skipping over a handful of articles that not only dismiss the rumors but mention this company’s plans to introduce a new breakthrough product. Favoring the rumor mill, he makes his recommendation — and his clients cash out just in time to see the company’s stock rise to an all-time high.

Seeking affirmation on what you believe — or wish to be true — is tempting and natural. But remember, there’s almost always a downside to a one-sided argument.

The Self-serving bias:

If life is good, it’s all my doing. If things suck, it’s all their fault.

Believe this, and you’ve been self-served.

I didn’t get a raise because my boss doesn’t like my political affiliation.

I scored the winning touchdown without anyone’s help.

Those judges don’t like redheads, so no wonder I only got second place in the Science Fair.

Justifying success by patting yourself on the back, while explaining away failure by pointing your finger at others makes this bias all too common. And just plain wrong.

The Curse of Knowledge and Hindsight Bias:

Fans of charades know this bias well.

Your team member’s arms are flailing about, while you have no idea where they’re going with this. They’re amazed (and more than a little pissed) you couldn’t figure out their obvious clue. And admittedly, once you knew the answer, you’re pretty amazed you didn’t either.

Oh, and time ran out and you lost the game.

Assuming others know what you know is the curse of knowledge. Admonishing others for “not being in the know” is the bias of hindsight.

Just remember that you were once in the shoes of the clueless. So, if you’re in charge of explaining worksite safety to the new guy, play it safe — and take the time to expound on every PPE, NTP, PEL and SDS.

The Optimism & Pessimism Bias:

Hope for the best, expect the worst. Some drink champagne, some die of thirst. No way of knowing which way it’s going, hope for the best expect the worst!
— The Producers, 1967

Being optimistic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many cases it helps reduce stress, and gives us an upbeat outlook on life. But there are risks beyond rose colored and half full glasses.

In consumer marketing, relying on product hype or puffery (wildly exaggerated claims or false praise) can be seductive to consumers. Supplements that promise amazing weight loss. Beauty products or surgical clinics that promise a more youthful appearance. Colognes or muscle cars that promise an uptick in your social life. With so many brands offering an optimistic future, hope springs eternal. But they often deliver nothing more than disappointing results or a false sense of invulnerability.

An overabundance of optimism in everyday can lead us to misguided and reckless behavior, such as spending beyond your means, not wearing your seat belt, ignoring your health or making you honestly believe your children are the smartest and most talented kids ever.

We’re sorry but they’re just not.

Of course, you can’t have positive without negative, so it’s smart to be a bit of a realist. Using mistakes from your past as a guide to future decisions will make sure you’re all right when things go wrong (and things will go wrong).

But for all those Eeyores out there, just remember that life is tough enough. And hanging on to your “badtitude” can keep you from your dream job, your dream girl or mustering the courage to ever leave the house again.

Sunk cost bias:

The fear of failure (or worse, the fear of being thought of as a failure) keeps this bias alive and well.

Usually associated with financial matters, the sunk cost bias is best described as throwing good money after bad.

And unfortunately, the bigger the investment, the more difficult it becomes to admit defeat and cut your losses.

Scenarios can be mild (you have a concert ticket you can’t use, but you can still sell it, or at the very least give it to appreciative friend) or a little more serious (you convince yourself to stay in a dead-end job or loveless marriage because you’ve invested so many years into it).

In the case of someone like Eddie Murphy, this bias can really weigh you down. His film Pluto Nash ended up costing a whopping $100 million, but to date has taken in a pathetic $4 million.

Now that my friends, is SUNK.

The Negativity Bias:

Like pessimism and sunk costs, the negative bias revolves around the premise that we love to win and hate to lose.

We’re programmed to understand that the outcome of any situation is going to have either good or bad results. But when we’re overly irrational and assume the worst, our actions become an exercise in futility. Not to mention exhausting.

Of the 100 people in the room, 99 think Bob is an awesome guy while one does not. Rather than bask in the admiration of the majority, Bob is consumed with the negative opinion of the single holdout.

You’ve always thought your partner’s laugh was infectious. But after a huge argument, you now find it irksome, which can spiral into a breakdown in communications and thoughts of breaking up.

You reach in your sweater pocket and find $20 and a ballpoint pen. When you pull them out, the pen falls through some grating. For the rest of the day you bitch and moan about losing your Bic.

You know why bad news travels fast? Because we let it. So, stop being such a Debbie Downer and lighten the heck up.

The Decline Bias:

To put it in song, this occurs when people prefer The Way We Were over The Best is Yet to Come.

People like order in their lives but aren’t fans of change.

And when faced with what they perceive as a bleak future (filled with escalating wars, looming recessions and the lousy music kids are listening to) they simply look to the past and simpler times.

OK, age is certainly a factor. But it’s not the only one.

If your stocks are going gangbusters, rather than celebrate you anticipate that soon they’ll level off…or go down.

Yes, for many there is comfort in declinism. And as weird as it sounds, believing disaster is just around the corner gives them something to look forward to.

The Backfire Effect:

If you had a strong opinion about something, yet were presented with facts that proved your opinion to be completely wrong, you would gladly admit it and adjust your beliefs to the new truth, wouldn’t you?

Yeah, right.

Ego drives this bias, and occurs when someone is confronted with solid proof that’s contrary to their position.

But rather than accept it, they dig in their heels and stick to their guns.

Your first impression of someone is that they’re a jerk. From that moment on, you witness first-hand what an angel this person is, and how wrong you were. Rather than concede the point, you remain convinced they’re a jerk. Which kind of makes you a jerk.

Or imagine you’re a scientist who years ago, helped pioneer some big discovery. Suddenly new studies are showing your methods to be dated and obsolete. Your standing in the scientific community, your life’s work (not to mention your massive ego) are all at stake — so, your immediate reaction is to attack the new findings with claims of flawed research and inflated results.

The truth may hurt, but refusing to see it really brings the pain.

The Fundamental Attribution Error:

This is when we attribute our failures to a twist of fate or the shortcomings of others, while attributing the failures of other to character flaws or well-placed karma.

When it happens to them it’s “They had it coming.” But when it happens to us it’s “Why me Lord?”

Ya gotta admit, bias is easy and commonplace (i.e. fundamental). And as we loathe the idea of being perceived as less than fantastic, we tend to cut ourselves a lot of slack. Yet, are all too quick to harshly judge everyone else — even if the situation is identical.

If a child spills a drink, parents are often prone to be right there with “If you’d been paying attention this wouldn’t have happened.” However, if a parent spills a drink? “Well, accidents happen.”

In one study, subjects were asked to respond to this scenario:

A dear friend has been silent and sullen as of late.

Four out of ten wondered if their friend were troubled or under stress.

Six out of ten wrote it off as a personality defect, deeming their friend as selfish and whiney.

When you set two different sets of criteria the blame game goes into overtime.

In-Group Bias:

The Crips and the Bloods. The Tigers and the Crimson Tide. The anti-fascists and the white supremacists.

From geography to politics to religion to alma maters, our desire to belong can be found all around — so we eagerly surround ourselves with those “in our group” who share similar interests, viewpoints or values.

You don’t have to go too many pages into the Bible to see that rivalry is one of our oldest human conditions. And while some good-natured competition can be fun and healthy, the conflict between devotion to your own and intolerance of the rest can escalate from social club to blood-thirsty mob in the blink of an eye.

A company hires an underqualified candidate over another with more experience for the sheer fact he’s a member of the president’s country club.

A drive-by shooting occurs after one gang brazenly encroaches onto another’s turf.

After a football game, a drunken bar brawl ensues because a handful of die-hards happened to be educated at two different universities.

This bias is big with business, both consumer and B2B. A purchase made by others in your in-group has shown to increase your desire for it, help loosen your purse strings and reinforce your communal connection.

Perhaps the most heartening (and controversial) example came in 1968. It was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and a third-grade teacher named Jane Elliot was desperate to explain to her class how irrational prejudice can lead to senseless tragedy. To prove her point, she divided her class by eye color, first designating the blue-eyed students as superior, then reversing roles giving those with brown eyes special privileges and preferential treatment. Ms. Elliott took a lot of flak for her experiment, but helping us see and accept the viewpoints of those outside our in-group can go a long way in making the world a better place.

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