“Knowing that one may be subject to bias is one thing; being able to correct it is another”- Jon Elster
In everyday life, individuals have a tendency of accepting things at face value rather than search for alternative explanations for one’s behaviour. However, there may be more to a situation than what meets the eye. Hence, it is necessary to consider all possible explanations before making conclusions.
What is bias?
Bias refers to the tendency of making decisions or taking actions in an illogical manner. On a daily basis, we make numerous attributions to comprehend events and behaviours. This often occurs without conscious awareness of the underlying processes and biases that lead to our inferences. For example, if someone scores well on a test, their performance may be attributed to their luck whereas if they do poorly, it may be attributed to their lack of capabilities. Similarly, in the workplace, if an employee is late to an important meeting, they may be viewed as lazy or incompetent, thereby being judged about their character solely based on one event. However, you were in the same situation, you may explain it as a result of situational factors such as traffic or an emergency. This concept is known as the correspondence bias or the fundamental attribution error.
The fundamental attribution error is one of the most common forms of bias and occurs when people overemphasise internal factors such as personality traits and minimise situational factors when explaining others’ behaviour. Similarly, it also occurs when individuals disregard internal factors and overemphasise situational factors to justify their own actions. This could lead to people making unfair and incorrect judgements about others, thereby resulting in harsh evaluations of individuals who may not deserve it. Moreover, this tendency to blame people for events beyond their control may happen in other situations and harm interpersonal relationships with friends, family or colleagues. Therefore, being aware of your cognitive biases is important as it may help foster better relationships with others.
Why might we be biased?
Although there is no single, concrete explanation for why people may automatically utilise such biases, there are a few possible root causes. The following ways are why we may be biased in our judgements:
- A lack of awareness of the entire situation– Although we may believe that we have an understanding of a situation, we usually have incomplete information about the constrains others face. Hence, making judgements using limited information may result in biased evaluations.
- Unrealistic expectations– People are generally not accurate at predicting how they or others would react and behave in a certain situation. This may create unrealistic expectations of an individual and hence, even with thorough understanding of a situation, we may still formulate opinions about another’s character. For example, even if people understand that someone was in a difficult, stressful situation, they may say that the individual reacted incorrectly, and that they would not have done the same. This is due to unrealistic expectations of others.
- Exaggerated assessments– Despite having realistic expectations and concrete understanding of one’s situation, the possibility of inaccurately comprehending their actions still exists. For example, someone who is late to a meeting may be extremely apologetic, however, other people may think that the individuals’ apology was not sincere enough. Although the apology may seem ambiguous to a detached observer, people may judge every subtle action negatively due to their prior knowledge about an individual, thereby resulting in an exaggerated assessment.
- Failure of altering initial assumptions– We have a tendency of making hasty judgements of individuals and situations in order to reduce uncertainty, and as new information emerges, these judgements are altered. However, when our mind is overloaded or occupied with numerous tasks, the negative image of an individual created may remain as we have not consciously revised our initial mistake.
Thus, these are a few possibilities as to why our judgements of individuals or situations may be biased. Nonetheless, with some awareness and caution, there are ways to prevent these biases from occurring.
Strategies to Avoid Bias
Although overcoming bias may be difficult, it is certainly not impossible. The following are a few ways to recognise and prevent such biases from occurring:
- Understanding– In difficult situations, trying to understand an individual by considering the positive qualities they possess, in addition to using evidence and logical reasoning before making judgements about them may help combat bias. Doing so can help balance your perspective and diverts the focus to all the qualities of the individual rather than just their mistakes. Consequently, it could reduce bias by preventing the formation of a negative image about an individual.
- Consider alternative explanations– If you notice yourself making biased judgements, actively thinking of alternative explanations (such as situational influences rather than dispositional factors) for one’s actions or behaviours may help reduce the impact of being biased. This can also help recognise the reasoning behind your bias, subsequently reducing the likelihood of displaying this bias in future.
- Emotional intelligence– Practicing emotional regulation, empathy and self-awareness may help become more objective in situations and improve consideration for the wellbeing of others in addition to individual interest, thereby reducing bias in judgements and decision-making processes.
- Educate yourself– Learning about biases such as the fundamental attribution error enhances your awareness of it which consequently facilitates in reducing its occurrence to a certain degree. If you have an understanding of different biases and how they manifest in everyday situations, it would be easier to recognise and thus prevent.
As biases are rooted in our psychology, they are quite prevalent and hence, completely eliminating bias may prove to be very difficult, maybe even impossible. However, making a conscious effort to reduce bias through a combination of the abovementioned tactics and a few tools can facilitate this process, thereby improving your relationships with others in your personal and professional life.