Are heuristics unknowingly leading you to bias?

We’ve all been under the spotlight of social shame due to a bias we possess. For we all have biases, and they often lead us astray. Some of us can pinpoint our biases and work on them if we please. However, most of the time biases go unnoticed- to the person who has them. These are called unconscious biases and they can result in hazardous social situations. Thankfully in cognitive psychology we have learned contributing factors which cause biases and because of this we can learn how to curb them.

Heuristics can be thought of as ways of thinking which help us make sense of the world. As a refresher, “A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently” (Cherry, 2020). Sounds good right? If you say yes, you are certainly not wrong. Humans use heuristics for a reason, nine out of ten times they work. In fact, the efficiency and ease of heuristics is it’s downfall and often what leads to biases. This is because if something works well, the one time it fails  tends to slip under the radar.

You may be asking, what sort of biases could faulty heuristics lead to? The answer is cognitive biases. Another quick refresher on our essential cognitive psychology vocabulary, cognitive biases are: “a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgments that people make” (Cherry, 2020). If someone grows up hearing negative and derogatory things about a particular race, they may fall prey to availability heuristics. Availability heuristics: “placing greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.” (Cherry, 2020). As one grows up and encounters members of the race which was often disparaged in front of them, they may use what’s available to them and feel bias. This can trigger a domino effect of cognitive biases, and before you know it you’re susceptible to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias: “favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform” (Cherry, 2020). In the real world it is easy to fall back into the way of thinking with which you were raised. To compound this, if you find people who agree with you it furthers confirms your preexisting notions.

This may sound cynical, but like many clouds there is a silver-lining. If you are aware of your biases and have a motivation to improve them you can! Ways to lessen the instinct for bias include reading things you wouldn’t ordinarily read, speak to people with vastly different perspectives than you, put yourself in another’s shoes and consider their mindset.

The main takeaway regarding heuristics is that like most things in life, it is a double-edged sword. On the one side heuristics help us a navigate a complex world, yet they also can lead to inaccurate and potentially damaging conclusions.

Cognitive Bias — Part 1 - UX Knowledge Base Sketch