Bias: A Human Affliction

Bias: A Human Affliction

Writing about bias, of course, requires a specific definition of what constitutes bias. Hoping to find a clear and concise definition of the term, I turned on Google’s “Advanced Search” only to find that there are 3 different types of bias, or 58 different types, or almost any number between. Experiments demonstrating bias range from agitated honey bees flying about with a negative attitude, to manipulating wine shoppers into choosing German wine over French wine by selectively playing accordion music rather than brass instruments. 

With so many “expert” definitions of bias to choose from, I eliminated all but those that motivated me to write this blog post: during my adult life I have never experienced such a hostile and emotionally charged partisan division between conservative and liberal voters so I researched the biases that likely were exploited to divide us so strongly. What inherent biases exacerbated this state of affairs?

Ingroup Bias

Our behavior towards others differs between members of the in-group and members of the out-group. There is a  camaraderie among in-group members based on familiarity, religion, ethnicity, political ideologies, geography, or other emotional bonds. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion or even hostility. Groups can be transitory (a group of spectators rooting for the same team) or long-lasting (a church congregation). Political affiliations are strongly driven by "identity politics."

One experiment randomly assigned people to two groups. Although there was no reason for forming the groups, each group rated themselves superior to the other group and worked to maintain their superiority.

More generally, people have a statistically significant preference for things that share their identity in some way: women tend to marry men who share the first letter of their maiden name; a disproportionate number of men named Louis live in St, Louis, women named Helen live in St. Helen, and so forth; and people display an affinity to numbers that equal to their birthday (e.g., people born on the third day of a month disproportionately live in Three Rivers Michigan).

The most prominent in-group conflict in our present environment is the political division between supporters of President Trump and his detractors.

Negativity Bias

Imaging studies of the human brain show that our cerebral cortex reacts more strongly to negative information than to positive information. Psychology Today reports this to be the reason negative political campaigns have much more impact than positive campaigns. Negativity bias is ingrained in our bodies. Evolution made this so; survival requires a more rapid and stronger response to potential harm than to positive experiences. For example, emotional balance in a close relationship requires five times as much time spent interacting positively (e.g. spending pleasurable time together) to balance out a negative interaction (e.g., an argument).

One study reports that negativity bias supersedes rational thought in making political decisions. Contrary to the notion that political decision-making relies mainly on rational thoughts, the study provided substantive evidence indicating that negativity bias is a key dimension underlying political ideology across cultures. The right and the left are more politically divided than at any time in my lifetime. The divide has been widened by negative bias fed by social media and opinion "rants" on both ends of the political spectrum.

Misinformation Bias

In a widely referenced study, 150 subjects watched a video of an auto accident. Immediately after watching the video, 50 of the subjects (the control group) were excused. The remainder was divided into two groups and asked a series of questions. One word in one question differed between the remaining two groups. Group 1 was asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other. Group 2 was asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other.

One week after watching the video, all 150 subjects were asked “Did you see the broken glass?” The control group answered “no”, the correct answer, 88% of the time. The “hit” group gave the same answer 86% of the time. By contrast, the “smashed” group answered correctly 68 % of the time (a statistically significant difference). The “misinformation” in this study is subtle: including suggestive language in a question has a measurable effect on one’s memory. Politicians (and attorneys) often exploit this bias.

Availability Heuristic

Both human and non-human animals can thank this bias for allowing our respective species to survive. A heuristic is a “rule of thumb” that quickly comes to mind without spending the time and energy to thoroughly evaluate a situation before reacting. When we hear an unexpected loud noise, we immediately react as if we are in some sort of danger. Rarely do we experience actual danger following the loud noise; the availability heuristic causes us to overestimate the probability of an event because it comes quickly to mind. This bias can be very beneficial to a species by triggering defensive action before fully assessing a potential danger. More generally, we often more efficiently make decisions based on past experience without full information. On the other hand, this bias can cause people to be overly cautious and overprotective of others, unduly limiting one’s ability to learn new skills and broadening positive experiences. Again, politicians use this bias effectively to frighten people into compliance.

Self-serving Bias

We have a tendency to attribute success to our hard work and abilities but tend to blame outside influences for failures. Studies using fMRI imaging of normal humans have determined that the dorsal striatum and dorsal anterior cingulate control self-serving bias. The same parts of our brains are responsible for motivation. As I write this, a news headline suggests we may even plan to employ the self-serving bias before knowing the success or failure of an effort. “Trump privately ready to blame Ryan and McConnell if Republicans lose midterms”

Anchoring Bias

When we make a decision with a wide range of options, we gravitate to an “anchor”. The anchor can be an opening offer in a financial transaction, a characteristic one is fixated on (linking the value of a car to the odometer reading), or the first piece of information a person encounters. One experiment had subjects spin a wheel that had an equal chance of landing on a number between 1 and 100. After spinning the wheel, each subject was asked to adjust their number up or down to estimate the number of African countries in the UN. Those who spun higher numbers gave higher estimates than those who spun lower numbers. In each case, the guess was anchored by the spin of the wheel.

Status-Quo Bias

We tend to have an emotional affinity towards the status quo. Consider two scenarios.

1, Imagine that the ultimate virtual reality machine is perfected; once connected to the machine, one cannot tell the difference between real life and the simulation of real life. If you could make an irreversible decision to permanently abandon your current life and live a life of your choosing in the machine for the remainder of your natural life, or continue in your present life, what would you decide? 

2. Now change the scenario. Imagine you are told that you have been a subject in an experiment that began the day you were born. Your life to date has been a simulation in a virtual reality machine but the experiment is over and you have a choice to finish the simulated life or disconnect and live in the outside world with your current memories intact except for this conversation and subsequent decision. However, be aware that life on the outside will not be controlled by the script of your simulated life. What would you choose?

Attentional Bias

In today’s environment, attentional bias coupled together with confirmation bias (a subject covered in an earlier blog post) is most noticeable in our choice of social and broadcast media. Most people focus on either conservative or liberal content; it is a rare individual who objectively considers the political positions on both ends of the political spectrum. By focusing only on a portion of the available information, we reinforce our attentional biases. Rather than considering all relevant possibilities before choosing a course of action, we tend to restrict our attention to the information that is consistent with prior convictions. 

Similar thought experiments suggest that most people would choose not to live the virtual reality machine in Scenario 1 above. However, the majority would choose not to disconnect from the virtual reality machine in Scenario 2. Apparently, we are not attached to the “reality” of the life we live but are more attached to the familiarity of our life. We appear to be inherently risk-averse.

During a financial transaction, experienced buyers or sellers often are the first to announce a starting price knowing that attention will be directed to that number and the final price will not stray far from that starting point.

More generally, we don’t consider all possibilities while making a decision, we consider the possibilities within the range of our attention. If you have not previously seen this video, take the challenge and count the number of times a person dressed in white throws a ball. 

Exploiting Our Biases

During my early exposure to news in the form of “newsreels” shown in movie theaters, I viewed the news as simply factual reporting. Only slowly over the years to follow did I realize that more and more opinion was being interjected into both the world and the national news. Research confirms this trend has reached a peak during the present political environment.

Market Watch, one of the least biased publications available today, summarizes in the headline below how far we, and the media, have migrated to political extremes.

How biased is your news source? If you don’t agree with this chart, examine your biases.

“In the past, national evening news programs, local evening news programs, and the front pages of print newspapers were dominated by fact-reporting stories,” says the chart’s creator, patent attorney Vanessa Otero. “Now, however, many if not most sources people consider to be ‘news sources’ are actually dominated by analysis and opinion pieces.”