Most of us like to think that we are in control of our actions. Turns out, your brain can be a big jerk, and you are susceptible to a long list of biases and reactions that can hold you back from acting objectively. Luckily, some good social psychology books (spurred on by well-research papers and experiments!) have revealed a large amount of these biases to the common reader.
Here are five notorious social biases and the ways that you can recognise them and react.
Fundamental Attribution Error
This is a very insidious bias that we all fall victim to from time-to-time.
The calling card of the fundamental attribution error is when we place a large amount of emphasis on situational explanations when rationalising when things happen to us, but we use personality-based explanations when rationalising what happens to others.
As an example:
If Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (personal/dispositional).
If Alice tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).
First uncovered by the classic study The attribution of attitudes, there are STILL no concrete explanations to explain its occurrence.
Some of the more common reasons cited include:
- The just-world phenomenon: our brains are naturally inclined to have a belief that the world is balanced or "fair", and that things that happen to others happen for a reason. While we often see other people this way, we have a tendency to see ourselves as "victims" instead.
- Salience of the actor: individuals capture our attention, so when observing their situation, we are focused on them, when observing our own situation, we focus on the environment.
- Automaticity & processing: we often process things on a subconscious level, and it's often easier for our brain to wave away a situation as happening "just because they deserve it" rather than looking at the circumstances.
Dealing with it: Unfortunately, there isn't much beyond an agreed list of "best practices" when it comes to dealing with the fundamental attribution error (it's that pervasive!). The best I've got for you is to remind yourself of the old adage of "Walking a mile in someone's shoes," and determining if the situation is playing a major role in the event.
For instance, if a beginner makes a mistake, recall a time when you were a beginner yourself at the same activity or another; it's likely that your nervousness, inexperience, and other outside factors caused you to make some errors as well.
The Halo effect is an attributional bias where our brain makes judgements about the character or competency of others based on our general impression of them. In some cases, it can be viewed as a form of social proof.
The problem occurs when these impressions are wrong. Since they are often based on superficial judgements (such as if the person is attractive to us), we can be wrong quite often.
What is also worrisome is that this bias seems to be present even at the highest levels of society in realms where objectivity should rule. In fact, it's been shown that on average, attractive people serve shorter prison sentences than others who were convicted of similar crimes.
Dealing with it: The most important way to battle against this bias is to try and detach yourself from the person at hand.
If the same action were committed by someone whom you didn't admire, would it impact you the same way? We have a tendency to get swept up in the stories of others, so ask yourself if the "mystique" about someone was gone, would you perceive their actions differently?
It's important to ask yourself these questions when trying to objectively evaluate the actions of someone who may have left a strong impression on you or is someone who you truly respect: those qualities don't always lead to the person being right.
The "naive cynicism" bias occurs quite often, even in the most trusting of people.
It states that people are, on average, likely to assume that others have more of an egocentric bias than themselves. This means that people believe that others are more likely to be egocentric than themselves when dealing with people.
We have data to show that this is not the case (statistically speaking), such asMalcom Gladwell's Blink, which showed that most people do not sue their doctors when injured due to negligence, despite the often-pervasive idea that patients are always taking advantage of malpractice in this manner.
In one series of experiments, groups including married couples, video game players, darts players and debaters were asked how often they were responsible for good or bad events relative to a partner.
Participants evenly apportioned themselves for both good and bad events, but expected their partner to claim more responsibility for good events than bad events than they actually did.
Dealing with it: The important thing to remember about this bias is that it's more of an outlook on others. While circumstance often plays a huge role in people's outlook on the world (those born in a crowded, crime-ridden city may have different views on other people than those who grew up in a quiet suburb), but it's important to remember that there are a LOT of people in the world and that, on average, most people evaluate situations in the same fashion that you do.
People by and large will give credit where it's due, and you should try to react to situations where you have some sort of inclination that the opposite will happen, not just assume that everyone is more egocentric than yourself.
This one probably didn't need a study to confirm it, am I right?
It's very obvious to many of us that people favour those who are in "their" group, but there is something a lot scarier about this bias than you may realize: people often form groups based on the most trivial distinctions.
In a notorious study called Social categorization and intergroup behaviour, social psychologist Henri Tajfel was able to show that people could be placed into groups from meaningless choices (choosing between two painters who they had never met) and then have these choices affect their reactions when it came time to dole out real rewards.
Think about that.
People who chose the same painter (again, the choice was meaningless) would then, when asked to deal out real rewards to any participant, chose to favour those who chose the same painter and DISCRIMINATE against those who didn't.
To make matters worse, in a study on customer loyalty programs, consumer researchers showed that people became more loyal to the programs when they knew that they were in a "gold" class and above other people enrolled in the program, showing that meagre distinctions of superiority can make people more loyal to a supposed in-group.
Additional studies have shown that things as shallow as similar purchases can trigger the effect. So if you meet someone and they also own some tennis racquets, terrariums, a pair of Crocs or a Dolphin Power Boat (yes, that's real), you are susceptible to in-group favouritism rearing its ugly head. Meeting someone with a common item, such as a guy who also wears pants, probably won't trigger the effect — at least I hope so!
Dealing with it: This one is especially tricky because we often encounter it due to the actions of others. To maintain our own objectivity, the best way is to envision an interaction without group constructs in place.
If this or that person weren't connected with you in some way, would you still feel the same about their actions? Conversely, if someone from the "other team" were on your side, would their actions be different in your eyes? It's important to consider these distinctions when evaluating individual situations because, as the research shows, we can be heavily influence by them.
No list would be complete without this one.
The Dunning-Kruger effect states that unskilled individuals are likely to suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. Conversely, those who are highly competent may have feelings of inferiority, because they believe everybody else has the same competency that they do.
According to Charles Darwin:
"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
It turns out that he was far more correct than many of us would like to admit.
In some recent research (2008), Dunning & Kruger asserted that individuals who were most likely to suffer from illusory superiority were those who were disinclined to receive feedback from others on their performance. Blocking out of any critiques allowed them to create a sense of accomplishment that wasn't necessarily true.
Dealing with it: Lacking confidence in oneself is just as bad as being overconfident. What then can we do to avoid falling victim to both sides of the Dunning-Kruger effect?
I think that the solution is best addressed in one of my favourite quotes by Ernest Hemingway:
"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self."
Focusing on improving yourself and not worrying about the performance of others or your skill in relation to them.
It's fine to be competitive, but when you spend too much time analysing what other people are doing (especially if it's not for a competitive sport or activity), you're just setting yourself up for disappointment as you set goals based on other people's lives rather than your own.
Over To You
I'd like to hear from you: which of these social biases do you encounter most often? Do you find yourself getting tricked by any in particular?
Gregory Ciotti is the founder of Sparring Mind, the blog that takes psychology and persuasive marketing and makes them play nice together. Download his free e-book on ‘Conversion Psychology' for more research or follow Greg on Twitter.