In what can only be called one of the most well-penned dialogues in English drama, a pensive Cassius points out to Brutus- “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, /But in ourselves”. Of course, there was a deep philosophical layering to his remark whose exploration has confounded thinkers and theorists alike. Within the ambit of this article however, we attempt to look at a more scientifically provable area of errors within us that often mar our judgement, causing us to make faulty opinions without even realizing it. Psychological biases are a common phenomenon seen among most people, and generally root in errors in social perception.
So, what then, are psychological biases? Social thought and perception is the basic manner in which the human mind perceives the society around it. This involves the formation of opinions, development of judgement mechanisms and formulation of thought processes to ease social interactions. Psychological biases stem from erroneous tendencies of social perception. To understand why they occur, it is essential to understand how we generally carry out social perception and how shifts within it cause us to make ineffective assumptions.
Some biases are caused because of faults in attribution. Attribution is the process of making social inferences on the basis of verbal and non-verbal cues to understand why someone behaves the way they do. In this context, we can either attribute behaviour to external factors, such as luck, or to internal factors, such as personality. When we commit the Fundamental Attribution Error, we tend to overestimate situational factors over internal factors when judging someone’s behavior. For instance, if a teacher screams in class, you attribute it to her impulsive personality than considering that she might be having a stressful day in school.
Another common error in attribution is something known as the Actor-Observer bias. It is the tendency to see other people’s behavior as dispositionally caused but focusing more on the role of situational factors when explaining one’s own behavior. Thus, while for the teacher who screams in class we say it roots in impulsiveness, the moment we scream ourselves, we insist it was because of some situational provocation, and never think it to stem from some internal error in personality.
Self-Serving bias is a kind of bias where we tend to attribute positive outcomes to our own traits or characteristics (internal causes) but negative outcomes to factors beyond our control (external causes). Thus, if a group project goes well under my leadership, it is because I worked hard and ensured unity. However, if it went down the drain, it is because people I worked with were extremely uncooperative and the project itself was too difficult.
There are some biases where we misread social cues or events within our environment. For instance, a person with the Positivity bias overestimates the probability of a favorable outcome coming to pass in a given situation. This occurs if he/she disregards some practical considerations or gives emphasis to those favorable and ignores the presence of unfavorable factors.
Automatic vigilance, on the other hand, is a bias wherein increased emphasis is given to negative stimuli and this attention to negative valence disrupts the processing of other stimulus properties. When confronted with a threatening stimulus, people typically devote increased attentional resources to that stimulus, raising the accessibility of evaluatively-similar information in memory, and biasing subsequent perceptions and judgments toward a threatening evaluation. To aid it with an example, consider that you have gone for an interview. It is more or less going well, but this once while you are answering, you see your interviewer frown. This negative stimulus makes you disregard every time he/she agreed with you by nodding his/her head, and you come to the conclusion that the interview was exceedingly bad and that you will not get the job.
There are several other biases that often tint our perceptions, but it seems like the best way by which we can tackle them is by realizing the importance of giving equal importance to social cues collectively. We need to realize that behavior, whether ours or someone else’s, and outcomes, is a consequence of both our situations and our dispositions. When taking into account social cues or measuring probabilities, we need to give equal emphasis to both positive and negative ones.
We are all far from being perfect but acknowledging the faults that we might have takes us a step closer to correcting them. At least if we know that the fault is within us and not our stars, we will perhaps also realize it is within us to correct it.
Picture Credits: edynamiclearning.com