The Echoes of the Mind – Bias


A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias. ~ English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy

Bias is a subconsciously imposed preference. Human tendency toward bias is innate, owing to the habit of the mind to categorize, coupled with the power that affect has on decisions. Besides conforming to preferential memory, biases provide comfort to an otherwise restless mind.

Uncertainty revs the mind into a tizzy, seeking determination. The predictable-world bias is the tendency to perceive order where it does not exist. The mind’s proclivity to pattern resolution facilitates this bias. More generally, biases creep into assessment and judgment as a matter of course.

People exercise an unconscious selection in being influenced. ~ American poet and essayist T.S. Elliot

In one experiment, heterosexuals found those of the other gender more sexually attractive if pictured with larger pupils. Those gazing at the photos were unaware of being influenced by pupil size.

The mind quickly makes judgments, placing most biases beyond scrutiny. Hindsight often only provides an excuse for ersatz rationalization.

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. ~ Canadian novelist Robertson Davies

Expectations bias evaluation of new information in one of two ways, depending upon the ambiguity of the information.

Ambiguous information is interpreted to fit preconceptions. A smile may seem affectionate from someone we like, and a smirk from someone we do not.

Certitude is beyond denial. But if the information is inconsistent with expectations, it receives more scrutiny than information consistent with that expected.

The strongest distinguishing characteristic of humans is their power of denial. ~ American scholar Deborah Harkness

People are rational enough to attempt cognitive consistency. Evidence that presents incongruity to opinion is often massaged until incorporated as confirming or picked at until its certainty is discounted.

People tend to interpret subsequent evidence so as to maintain their initial beliefs. The biased assimilation processes underlying this effect may include a propensity to remember the strengths of confirming evidence, but the weaknesses of disconfirming evidence, to judge confirming evidence as relevant and reliable but disconfirming evidence as irrelevant and unreliable, and to accept confirming evidence at face value while scrutinizing disconfirming evidence hypercritically. ~ American psychologist Charles Lord et al


What people consider normal is a curious blend of statistical and moral notions.

People’s conception of the normal deviates from the average in the direction of what they think ought to be so. ~ American psychologist Adam Bear & American ethicist Joshua Knobe

Rationally, there should be a clear distinction between how things are and how things ought to be. But the two are typically blended together.

Normal is commonly construed as a bit better than actuality. This bias settles the mind into a comfort zone that acquiesces to the status quo while not abandoning betterment.

It is easy to see that normalization is a slippery slope. Becoming accustomed to creeping evil may soothe the soul while selling it in increments.

People’s attitudes toward atypical behavior are frequently colored by this blended conception of normality. ~ Adam Bear & Joshua Knobe


A framing effect is said to occur when equivalent descriptions lead to different choices. ~ American psychologists Shlomi Sher & Craig McKenzie

A framing effect is a bias introduced by viewing a situation in a certain context. Framing often occurs in terms of personal gain or loss. Humans are typically more loss-averse than they are gain-oriented.

Human choices are remarkably susceptible to the manner in which options are presented. This so-called “framing effect” represents a striking violation of the standard economics accounts of human rationality. ~ English cognitive cognitive scientist Benedetto De Martino et al

When a situation has a negative frame, people avoid risk. Given a positive frame, risk appears less significant, even though the situation is the same.

The degree of honesty or deception people practice involves a calculation of cost, often done subconsciously. People who are primed to think in terms of money tend to cheat. People who are primed to self-reflect on their qualities tend toward honesty.

Framing occurs all the time. The mind frames a situation for us subconsciously, and off we go. It takes conscious mental effort to neutralize framing effects.

Sunk Cost

People are notoriously bad at making assessments on when it’s time to stop. They tend to be influenced by the psychological sense that they might be throwing away their investments. ~ American psychologist Alan Lambert

There is a strong tendency to view time or resources spent as an investment, even when the relevant dynamic has no relation to, or prospect for, reward. Some things simply don’t pay back.

Feeling a “sunk cost” can strongly bias the decision to continue an endeavor, and so risk further loss. The sunk-cost effect reflects emotional attachment. Continuing a gamble, a bad relationship, or a war, is commonly done simply because an “investment” has been made, and to not persist would be a “waste.”

Lives may be one of the more potent triggers of the sunk-cost effect. Money and relationships that are sunk are tough, too, but throwing away lives is deeply aversive, and such a powerful thing. ~ Alan Lambert

Many animals beside humans suffer sunk-cost thinking. Its bias of diligence is not without rationale, and so has been conserved in evolution.

If the correlation between past efforts and future value provides better predictions than the uncertainties of future outcomes, then animals may have evolved processes that use past effort as a proxy to estimate future value. ~ American psychologist Angus MacDonald III et al


Gender affects how people respond to framing, though not entirely consistently. In matters of life and death, women are more responsive to negative presentation (how many will die) than positive (how many will survive). Men respond more to positive framing of such situations.

In health choices, women are more likely than men to like positive framing (e.g., 80% fat-free chocolate being preferable to the identical 20% fat chocolate).

In financial negotiation, whereas women are unaffected by framing, men react negatively to a presentation associated with taking rather than giving. Generally, men are more affected by a negatively framed message about loss compared to a positive representation of gain.


Categorization is atomic framing. In dispensing with uniqueness in favor of sets, such framing invariably involves bias. Broadly, framing is a cognitive context which takes into account personal history or the dynamics of a situation.

However common, and perhaps necessary, subconscious framing is suboptimal mentation. As contrasted to spontaneity, habitual thinking and rote behavior are products of unconscious framing.

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The glass is half full.

The glass is half empty.

In one experiment, 2 glasses were put in front of the participants. One glass was empty, the other full of water.

Each participant was asked to pour half of the water from the full glass to the empty one, then place the half-empty glass near the edge of the table.

Most participants put the previously full glass near the table’s edge. When then asked to move the half-full glass, most chose the one previously empty.

The foregoing example illustrates the difference between descriptive equivalence and information equivalence. The two can be in different frames, and so affect decisions.

The reference frame from which information is regarded often affects its interpretation. Considering different frames of mathematically equivalent information helped American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman make new discoveries. Einstein’s relativity theories were the result of fresh framing. Most scientific discoveries are made by looking at well-known phenomena from a fresh perspective.

 Crime & Punishment

It only seems fair that actions are judged by themselves, without the past piling in. Yet repeat offenders are commonly given more severe sentences, even when their crimes are unrelated. However sensible it may seem to put away “bad apples,” a framing bias is in play.

Whereas positive prior records have little effect on moral judgments, negative histories cast a deep, dark shadow: increasing ascription of intention and greater blame.

In making judgments about punishment, intentions can matter more than outcomes.

People assign less punishment to attempted crimes when harm coincidentally happens to befall the intended victim by some independent mechanism, as compared to when no harm befalls the victim at all. ~ Fiery Cushman

In a 2008 study, participants were asked about the proper punishment under 2 scenarios.

The premise behind both stories is that one athlete (Smith) wants to kill his closest competitor (Brown). Learning that Brown is fatally allergic to poppy seeds, Smith surreptitiously sprinkles poppy seeds into Brown’s salad.

In both stories, it turns out that Brown is not allergic to poppy seeds. Smith was misinformed.

In the 1st vignette, Brown is unharmed from Smith’s poppy seed sprinkling. In the 2nd scenario, although Brown is not allergic to poppy seeds, he is deadly allergic to walnuts, which get mixed into the salad Brown eats by the chef, who was unaware of Brown’s allergy. While the poppy seeds have no effect, the walnuts do Brown in.

In the instance where Brown accidentally died, people said Smith deserved less punishment than when Brown was unharmed. This contradicts the commonsense notion that punishment should depend only on the harm caused, not intent.


Framing bias is easily introduced subconsciously. Any image or music that is emotively evocative induces it, biasing contemporaneous impressions. Framing effect is the modus operandi of advertising.

The most objective way to examine a situation is purely factually, without a frame: especially in interpersonal situations, not subjectively identifying with oneself. Instead, consider oneself as merely a bystander, considering oneself in the 3rd person. This affords looking at the situation from each person’s point of view and self-interest, and so more fully understanding the dynamics in play.


The more committed we are to a certain opinion, the less likely we are to relinquish it, even if confronted with massive contradictory evidence. ~ Israeli astrophysicist Mario Livio

The strongest and most pervasive biases concern belief systems. Those with cherished beliefs are closed to contradiction, especially of facts which chisel at the foundations. The response often goes beyond counterfactual incontinence: backfiring into strengthening belief rather than weakening it.

When new information comes in, if it is consistent with your world view or your opinion, you let it in; if it is inconsistent, you block it out. ~ American political scientist Brandon Lenoir

In one experiment, proponents and opponents of capital punishment were given evidence about its deterrence effect. Participants found work that was consistent with prior belief to be well-conducted research, and important confirmation. Conversely, evidence that contradicted belief was found marred by flaws. Exposure to a mixed body of evidence made both sides even more convinced that their position was correct.

Belief polarization will increase, rather than decrease or remain unchanged, when mixed or inconclusive findings are assimilated by proponents of opposite viewpoints. ~ Charles Lord et al

What a fool believes, no wise man has the power to reason away. ~ American singer/songwriter Michael McDonald in the song “What a Fool Believes” (1978)


How the present is evaluated is primarily a product of disposition. In contrast, the past and future are typically buoyed by bias.

Hindsight Bias

Anything seems commonplace, once explained. ~ Doctor Watson to Sherlock Holmes

A common cognitive bias comes in hindsight. Most everything seems obvious once you know about it.

Hindsight bias projects new knowledge into the past, accompanied by a denial that knowing the outcome has influenced judgment. Those who learn of an outcome and claim that they “knew it all along” are fooling themselves.

When people know how an event turned out, they are usually unable to reproduce the judgments they would have made without outcome knowledge. Furthermore, they are unaware of their inability to recapture their pre-outcome state of mind. ~ American philosopher David Wasserman et al

People make sense of the past by superimposing structure and simplifying their recollection. Knowing the outcome is effortlessly assimilated into this schematic, and so unknowingly affects perception of causality. Only in hindsight can an outcome appear inevitable.

In retrospect, we perceive the logic of the events which unfold themselves according to a recognizable pattern with an inner necessity. So we get the impression that it really could not have happened otherwise. ~ American psychologist Baruch Fischhoff

Gathering any sort of impression about the contingency of events or the inevitability of an outcome comes from counterfactual thought. To the degree that counterfactuals are easily generated, the past seems less inevitable, as other outcomes were possible.

More often, the mind seeks to comprehend how an outcome came about by sussing its causal elements. Being able to explain breeds certainty. Hence, by increasing the likelihood of an outcome, counterfactual thinking can heighten hindsight bias.

In hindsight, people consistently exaggerate what could have been anticipated in foresight. They not only tend to view what has happened as being inevitable, but also to view it as having appeared “relatively inevitable” before it happened. People believe that others should have been able to anticipate events much better than was actually the case. They even misremember their own predictions so as to exaggerate in hindsight what they knew in foresight. ~ Baruch Fischhoff

Once an outcome or fact is acknowledged, it is impossible for the mind to revert to its previous state. Knowledge is cumulative; like a bucket that can only be filled, never emptied. You cannot unknow something.

What is the image below of? Look carefully before reading further.

There is a Dalmatian sniffing the ground, its head in the center of the picture. Once you spot the dog, it is hard not to see it. The mind refuses to return to a prior state.

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards. ~ Søren Kierkegaard

The inability to subtract what is known is the curse of knowledge.  Information purveyors – teachers, authors, and technology developers – often assume that what is clear to them will also be clear to others. They realize that others lack their expertise, but it remains a challenge not to underestimate a lack of knowledge and devise the best way to help someone mount a learning curve.

Once we know something, we can’t imagine ever thinking otherwise. ~ American economist Richard Thaler

Future Bias

People’s views of their pasts and futures are qualitatively different. They give their pasts mixed reviews, whereas they view their futures as unequivocally positive. ~ Canadian psychologists Michael Ross & Ian Newby-Clark

Hindsight bias has a mirror image, also constructed for psychological buoyancy; but there is an asymmetric distortion: whereas the past is sullied by what was, the future is unfiltered. Feeling the sunshine of optimism is common: hence the phrase “looking forward” has an intrinsic luminance.

“The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.” ~ American musician Pat MacDonald in the song of the same name (1986)


For those seeking senseless stimulation, gambling readily becomes addictive compulsion. Persistence in this unrewarding enterprise is facilitated by a subtle rewrite of history.

Chronic gamblers do not paint a rosy picture for the future by remembering their successes and forgetting failures. Quite the contrary. Punters spend considerable time scrutinizing their losses. While wins are taken at face value, losses are toted up as flukes: the outcome would have been different if only….

Losses become a close call. An optimistic tweak of technique is the calling card that helps place the next bet after a loss.

Gamblers come to see negative outcomes not as losses that signal the difficulty of ever coming out ahead, but as near-wins that call for just a little strategic fine-tuning. ~ Thomas Gilovich

The Hot Hand

There is a common perception that a psychological force called momentum exists that can powerfully influence performance. ~ American psychologist Keith Markman

One of the most persistent and pervasive fallacies is that of the “hot hand”: being on a winning streak while gambling, or in other events with unpredictable outcomes. It is a bias of enthusiasm held by the statistically challenged.

Belief in the hot hand is especially common in sports, especially basketball, from whence the term arose. Through less-than-careful statistics, studies repeatedly failed to find evidence of the hot hand. But there are days when athletes are especially well-focused, and their probability of deft accomplishment rises. (The hot-hand effect may be statistically masked by the fact that basketball players “feeling it” tend to attempt lower-percentage shots, thus lowering their shooting percentage for the game.)

The hot hand can happen in games of skill but has no chance in games of chance.

Emotional Bias

The foundation of decision theory is that people attempt to satisfy their long-term preferences; but people often behave myopically under the influence of affect: maximizing short-term gratification with inadequate attention to long-term consequences. ~ George Loewenstein

The mood of the moment skews outlook. Feeling chipper, carpe diem chimes in the mind.

Our passions infiltrate our intuitions. ~ David Myers

Emotions seem outsized. People overestimate how good they will feel, and for how long, when something desired is obtained. Conversely, negative emotions are overcome more quickly than predicted. The emotional immune system has the means for rationalizing, discounting, and otherwise stanching trauma.

Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think. ~ American psychologist David Schkade & Israeli American psychologist Daniel Kahneman

Biases roll in under the fog of emotion. George Loewenstein termed the trouble people have reasoning in the grip of affective states hot-cold empathy gaps. Hot-cold empathy gaps have 2 directions: hot-to-cold and cold-to-hot.

Under hot-to-cold, people don’t realize how much their behavior is driven by their instant emotional state. They think immediate emotively driven goals reflect their long-term preferences. Hearing people declare ridiculous intentions in the heat of such a moment is quite common.

In cold-to-hot, becalmed people fail to anticipate how much inflamed emotion affects their behavior. This leaves them unprepared when a heated moment arises.

People have difficulty predicting what they will want and how they will behave in affective states that are different from their current state. ~ George Loewenstein

Another emotive tilt is restraint bias, which is the tendency to overestimate the ability to control impulsive behavior. An inflated belief in self-control can lead to more exposure to temptation, and increased impulsiveness. Hence, restraint bias is related to addiction.

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself. ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

Self-Esteem Bias

People couldn’t bear to go on living if they faced every cold truth about themselves. ~ American author Dean Koontz

Overconfidence is ubiquitous. People think they have a surer grasp than they do.

Boy, everyone is stupid except me. ~ American cartoon character Homer Simpson

The strongest bias is the preservation of self-esteem. Though serving a singular goal, self-serving bias has multifarious facets.

Everybody ranks himself high in the qualities he values. ~ American economist Thomas Shelling

People like to think of themselves as above average. This is especially easy when the criteria are amorphous, allowing self-definition to suit oneself. Such traits as intelligent, athletic, fair, sensitive, kind, and generous are readily skewed to fit one’s own bill.

We see not only our own lives through rose-tinted glasses, but also the lives of those we care about. People experience vicarious emotions in response to others’ successes and misfortunes. ~ German psychologist Andreas Kappes

Self-esteem bias extends to loved ones. Practicing vicarious optimism, people update their beliefs about those they like when sanguine news arrives about future prospects, but neglect word of brewing mishap.

This learning bias arises from self-enhancing motivations that enable people to develop and maintain positive beliefs about themselves and their future. ~ Andreas Kappes et al

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People accept more responsibility for good deeds than for bad, and for successes than for failures. ~ David Myers

The reason that success is no teacher is that individuals savor the credit for it, not scour for self-improvement. Conversely, failure is typically dismissed as attributable to bad luck or an impossible situation, not personal performance.

Self-esteem has considerable effect on social relations. People who feel they deserve respect and admiration expect to be treated well, and so are more willing to trust others.

Social Bias

Evidence for the tendency for people to perceive events in a biased or inaccurate manner comes from a long line of research in social psychology. ~ Canadian social psychologist Janice Gray & American social psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver

Psychological bias to succor self-esteem in social settings is pervasive. The subconscious filters feedback, especially when the uptake would put a dent in self-regard.

Even when people are giving us signals about what they really think, we often have a hard time seeing them. ~ Timothy Wilson

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to put undue emphasis on the internal dynamics of personality to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation rather than considering circumstance. The flip side of this is actor-observer bias, in which people overemphasize the influence of a situation in attributing their own behaviors while underemphasizing personality.

Sense of status between partners and amid peers is an especial stressor. A study of young married couples found each taking more credit for childcare and household chores than their spouses gave them credit for. Ask a husband or wife what percentage of time that they respectively take for individual domestic tasks, and their estimates of their own efforts usually sum to over 100%.

Self-serving bias about responsibility contributes to marital discord and dissatisfaction at the workplace. Most people in divorce blame their spouse. Most managers blame poor performance on worker incompetence or indolence. Workers tend to blame someone or something else: excessive workload, difficult colleagues, assignment ambiguity.

Students take credit for their good grades but fault the exam when they falter. Teachers accept credit for student achievements, but failures are shouldered by students.

Most people see themselves as better than average: more intelligent, better looking, less prejudiced, and more ethical.

The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others. ~ French author François de La Rochefoucauld

90% of workers and managers rate themselves as superior to their peers. People evaluate pay raises as fair when they get more than others.

Most drivers – even those hospitalized from accidents that were their fault – believe themselves safer and more skilled at the wheel than the average Joe on the road.

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People tend to believe that others feel, think, and act as they themselves do. ~ American social psychologist Joachim Krueger

People who are rude to others overestimate how common such behavior is. Their self-image is shored up by a sense of false consensus. Moral lapses are excused as being the norm.

In contrast, people who act virtuously feel a false uniqueness: underestimating how common such behavior is. This misconception also elevates self-regard.

How little we should enjoy life if we never flattered ourselves. ~ François de La Rochefoucauld

What people think others believe influences their own beliefs. This is the nature of being a gregarious creature: using information from others to shape what we think.

The effectiveness of this information channel is compromised by false consensus bias, which deflates the ability to accurately assess others. Freud called this a projection: thinking that others share the same attitudes and beliefs. Exaggerating the extent that others are like oneself makes people more resistant to change than they would be otherwise.

There are, of course, corrections: bizarre notions do not survive feedback. But the tendency of people to associate with those who are like-minded forms an insular bubble of implicit confirmation.

Further, people rarely challenge one another, even when they do conflict on tastes, mores, or assumed maxims. Adults are generally reluctant to argue about beliefs, or even point out social faux pas unless they are egregious. The potential for awkwardness is off-putting.

“One cannot go around correcting others.” ~ Miss Manners

Children, on the other hand, tend to be brutally honest with one another: social blunders are enthusiastically jeered. Thus, the formative years provide the most informative feedback about our worldview hypotheses, when they are most needed.


Black is sinister in every culture: the color of evil and death. The bad guys wear black hats.

Teams in the US National Football League and National Hockey League with black uniforms rank near the top of their leagues in penalties. When a team switches from nonblack to black uniforms, penalties go up.

Professional referees watched replays of an identical football scrimmage. The ones who saw the black-uniformed version rated the play as more aggressive and deserving a penalty than those that saw the white-uniformed version.

The enduring bias against black people by whites, which is especially egregious in the United States, owes in large part to skin color. Black Americans, even children, are perceived as more aggressive than Caucasians.

The more self-confident and positive a white person is about social acceptance, the greater the perception that a similar black person is bellicose; the darker the skin, the worse the bias.

Black men are judged to be larger, stronger, and more muscular than white men of the same size. American white men also believe that black men more capable of causing harm, and that police are justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men are unarmed.

Unarmed black men are disproportionately more likely to be shot and killed by police, and often these killings are accompanied by explanations that cite the physical size of the person shot. These descriptions reflect stereotypes of black males that do not comport with reality. ~American social psychologist John Paul Wilson


People tend not to recognize bias in their judgments. Such “bias blindness” persists even when people acknowledge that the judgmental strategies preceding their judgments are biased. Not only does sense of personal objectivity survive using a biased strategy, it grows stronger. ~ American psychologist Katherine Hansen et al