What is a Bias?

From “The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy” by Christopher Beem

Since it is so relevant to what follows, let me take a minute to talk about what biases are and why we have them. A bias is an endemic inclination, one to which all of us are subject. People differ on how many discrete biases we are subject to, but in the words of Ben Yagoda, leaving aside the trivial ones and the duplicates, “a solid group of 100 or so biases have been repeatedly shown to exist.” A complete list would take us too far afield, but here are a few that have been well established through research:

  • The anchoring bias means we tend to give undue influence to the first piece of information we hear.
  • Hindsight bias means that once events are in the past, we tend to see them as much more explainable and predictable – even inevitable – than they ever really were.
  • The halo effect means we tend to find people who are physically attractive more knowledgeable than those who are not.

Again, there are lots more. And as I will show, several biases are directly implicated in, and exacerbated by, our tribal identity. But the point is that all of these biases are part of our wiring. They are largely unconscious and effectively ubiquitous. And all of them cause us to think less effectively and accurately, leading us to reach conclusions that are less reliable than those we might otherwise be capable of. What is more, you cannot turn off these biases or outsmart them. All you can do is strive to diminish their effect.