You probably realize that there are subtle cognitive and motivation biases that influence your perceptions and decisions. Yet if you are like most people, you also tend to notice those biases more in other people than in yourself. This tendency to recognize cognitive biases in others and still fail to see how bias influences your own thinking is known as the bias blind spot. Simply put, the blind spot bias is a cognitive blind spot that keeps you from seeing your own biases. Like a blind spot in a car, this bias blind spot can prevent us from seeing things that can have a critical role in the decisions we make.
As you are driving down the freeway, you glance over your shoulder and check the rear-view mirror. Seeing nothing in the other lane, you begin to merge over. As you are making the move, another car suddenly blares its horn and you instantly realize that there indeed was another vehicle in that lane – it was simply in your blind spot. A blind spot is simply something that you consistently overlook, often unintentionally. Unable to see the other car, you made a driving maneuver that easily could have ended in a traffic accident.
The bias blind spot is similar in that it is something that affects the choices you make, even though you cannot see it. As you weigh a decision, many factors play a role in your thoughts, yet it is often the factors we are unaware of that may impact these choices in ways we may not have considered. This blind spot for your own biases can lead to faulty or distorted thinking, which can lead to poor decision making. Sometimes the consequences of this flawed thinking may be relatively minor, but in other situations it can lead to regrettable outcomes.
The Bias Blind Spot Is More Common Than You Think
Interestingly, people often believe that they are less likely to be biased than their peers. According to a study published in the journal Management Science, nearly all people suffer from the blind spot bias. Out of 661 participants, only one person stated that he or she was more biased than the average person. The majority of those in the study, approximately 85 percent, actually believed that they were less biased, whether or not they exhibited unbiased decision-making.
“People seem to have no idea how biased they are. Whether a good decision-maker or a bad one, everyone thinks that they are less biased than their peers,” explained Carey Morewedge, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of marketing at Boston University. “This susceptibility to the bias blind spot appears to be pervasive, and is unrelated to people’s intelligence, self-esteem, and actual ability to make unbiased judgments and decisions.”
What Causes the Bias Blind Spot?
So what causes the bias blind spot? A desire to see oneself positively as rational, logical thinker plays a role. People realize that being biased is not a desirable quality, so they tend to view their own decisions as being the result of pure logic and reason.
The reality is that many of the mental processes that go into making a decision are unconscious, so people tend not to be aware of how heuristics, biases, and other mental shortcuts affect the choices they make. Even when people become aware of some of their own biases, they often find it difficult to control or change.
The Bias Blind Spot Affects Your Decisions and Behaviors
The researchers who conducted the previously mentioned study also suggest that the bias blind spot can have a significant effect on behavior.
“When physicians receive gifts from pharmaceutical companies, they may claim that the gifts do not affect their decisions about what medicine to prescribe because they have no memory of the gifts biasing their prescriptions. However, if you ask them whether a gift might unconsciously bias the decisions of other physicians, most will agree that other physicians are unconsciously biased by the gifts, while continuing to believe that their own decisions are not. This disparity is the bias blind spot, and occurs for everyone, for many different types of judgments and decisions,” explained Erin McCormick, one of the study’s authors.
Political donations may be another example of how the bias blind operates. Politicians often accuse other elected officials of being swayed by donations from lobbies, yet insist that their own votes on certain issues are not swayed by who does or does not donate to their campaigns.
The researchers conducted experiments that involved validating a bias blind spot assessment tool that they developed and to see whether bias blind spot differences were associated with factors such as decision-making abilities, IQ, and self-esteem. Additional experiments also look at how the bias blind spot related to the social comparisons people make, how people handled advice from others, and how receptive they were to training designed to reduce biases.
What they discovered that people who tend to have higher levels of blind spot bias are also:
- Less likely to accept advice from others, whether they are peers or experts
- Less likely to learn from training that would reduce biases and help them make better decisions
Essentially, many people who are highly biased not only believe that they are less biased than their peers; they are also more likely to ignore the input of experts and more likely to resist efforts to reduce their biases.
Such findings may be particularly relevant today as people combat political conspiracy theories fueled by biased thinking. The research suggests that not only are many people who hold such beliefs blind to their own biases – they are also not receptive to information that might correct their faulty thinking.
Page, A. (2009). Unconscious bias and the limits of director independence. University of Illinois Law Review, 1: 237–294.
Scopelliti, I., Morewedge, C.K., McCormick, E., Min, H.L., Lebrecht, S., & Kassam, K.S. (2015). Blind spot bias: Structure, measurement, and consequences. Management Science, 201561:10 , 2468-2486.