Tag Archives: Bias

Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful

Pop quiz: hands up — how many of you think positive stereotypes are OK?

I suspect that for many of you, your first reaction may have been, “well, yeah, they’re positive, right?” I can totally empathize with that shortcut, but consider this excellent quote from Gordon Allport, one of the “founders” of personality psychology: “People may be prejudiced in favor of others; they may think well of them without sufficient warrant,” [quote excerpted from journal article cited below].

Last year, researchers sought to summarize some of the research about positive stereotypes. There were a number of interesting findings. For instance:

Among [a] sample of Asian American students, the majority (52%) had negative reactions (e.g., feeling marginalized) to their group being considered the “model minority” compared with 26% who had positive reactions. […] Although the subjective favorability of positive stereotypes may facilitate their expression among perceivers who intend them as “compliments,” the targets of such stereotypes can feel depersonalized as if they are being acknowledged exclusively through their category membership. [Emphasis mine]

So, while it might be a ‘positive’ stereotype that Asian Americans are considered the “model minority,” it’s possible that an Asian American may feel as if they are being depersonalized when having the stereotype directed at them. That is, they may no longer feel like they’re a person, but rather that they simply belong to this category called “Asian American.”

Let’s back up for a moment.

When I talk about stereotypes in my lectures to students, one of the first things I do is explain the mechanics of a stereotype. Our brain is processing way more stimuli than we could possibly fathom. For instance, in your office right now, do you hear the hum of the lights or the sound of the fan? If you’re on the bus or in a car, do you notice the sound of the brakes? How about at home… do you still hear the creaky sounds of the floorboards or the plethora of sounds that come out of the basement/vents? I suspect the answer to many of these questions for most of you will be no and that’s because you have habituated to them. Your brain has recognized them as non-threatening and moved on to focus on other stimuli — people.

There are so many people on the planet. Really, we could say that there are over 7 billion different kinds of people, but that’s impossible for a brain that’s trying to process as much as it can. So, when you meet people, your brain is busy trying to recognize patterns that it can map onto previous people you’ve met. When everyone’s brain does this, it follows that a thing called “stereotype” emerges. That is, a stereotype is our brain’s way of trying to find a shortcut for understanding the different kinds of people we interact with during our lives.

So, in the example above about Asian Americans, somewhere along the way, someone’s brain decided Asian Americans represented what they believed was a ‘model citizen.’ Forgetting for a second whether this is valid, it’s likely that there were other people’s brains came to this conclusion and so the stereotype is perpetuated.

Just because our brain is doing this in the “background” doesn’t make it ok. As humans, there are so many biases that we have to be aware of when making decisions — our brain taking shortcuts with stereotypes is just one of them. So, what can you do?

Well, as I often say when it comes to biases — the first step is awareness. You’ve gotta recognize that you’re falling prey to stereotyping and once you recognize that you’re doing it, I urge you not to be so hard on yourself. Let’s be clear — I’m not giving you a “pass” for stereotyping, no. But the culture from which you derive can have a lasting effect on your beliefs about people (which inform whether you employ stereotypes).

One quick and easy way to awareness — if you’re ready for it — is Harvard’s Project Implicit Test. I did a quick search and I was surprised that I’ve only mentioned this one other time in the last few years on this site and it was only in passing. From their site:

Psychologists understand that people may not say what’s on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. For example, if asked “How much do you smoke?” a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may purposely report smoking only 2 packs a day because they are embarrassed to admit the correct number. Or, the smoker may simply not answer the question, regarding it as a private matter. These are examples of being unwilling to report a known answer. But it is also possible that a smoker who smokes 4 packs a day may report smoking only 2 packs because they honestly believe they only smoke about 2 packs a day. Unknowingly giving an incorrect answer is sometimes called self-deception; this illustrates being unable to give the desired answer.

The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding. The IAT measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

If you’re ready for the results, I strongly suggest you take the test.

ResearchBlogging.orgCzopp, A., Kay, A., & Cheryan, S. (2015). Positive Stereotypes Are Pervasive and Powerful Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10 (4), 451-463 DOI: 10.1177/1745691615588091

Choice Architecture: Even in “Heads or Tails,” It Matters What’s Presented First

If you’re familiar with behavioural economics, then the results of this study will be right up your alley.

The researchers set out to determine whether there was a “first-toss Heads bias.” Meaning, when flipping a coin and the choices are presented “Heads or Tails,” there would be a bias towards people guessing “Heads” (because it was presented first). Through running their tests, they found something else that surprised them [Emphasis Added]:

Because of stable linguistic conventions, we expected Heads to be a more popular first toss than Tails regardless of superficial task particulars, which are transient and probably not even long retained. We were wrong: Those very particulars carried the day. Once the response format or verbal instructions put Tails before Heads, a first-toss Tails bias ensued.

Even in something as simple as flipping a coin, something where the script “Heads or Tails” is firmly engrained in our heads, researchers discovered that by simply switching the order of the choices, the frequency with which people chose one option or the other changed. That’s rather incredible and possibly has implications from policy to polling. However:

There is, of course, no reason to expect that, in normal binary choices, biases would be as large as those we found. In choosing whether to start a sequence of coin tosses with Heads or Tails, people ostensibly attach no importance to the choice and therefore supposedly do not monitor or control it. Since System 1 mental processes (that are intuitive and automatic) bring Heads to mind before Tails, and since there is no reason for System 2 processes (which are deliberative and thoughtful; see, e.g., Kahneman & Frederick, 2002) to interfere with whatever first comes to mind, many respondents start their mental sequence with Heads. However, in real-life questions people often have preferences, even strong ones, for one answer over another; the stronger the preference, the weaker the bias. A direct generalization from Miller and Krosnick (1998) suggests that in choices such as making a first-toss prediction, where there would seem to be no good intrinsic reason to guide the choice, order biases are likely to be more marked than in voting. At the magnitude of bias we found, marked indeed it was. Miller and Krosnick noted with respect to their much smaller bias that “the magnitude of name-order effects observed here suggests that they have probably done little to undermine the democratic process in contemporary America” (pp. 291–292). However, in some contexts, even small biases can sometimes matter, and in less important contexts, sheer bias magnitude may endow it with importance.

OK, so maybe these results don’t add too much to “government nudges,” but it can — at a minimum — give you a slight advantage (over the long haul) when deciding things by flipping coins with your friends. How?

Well, assuming that you are the one doing the flipping, you can say to your friend: “Tails or Heads?” (or “Heads or Tails?”) and then be sure to start the coin with the opposite side of what your friend said, facing up. A few years ago, Stanford math professor Persi Diaconis showed that the side facing up before being flipped is slightly more likely to be the side that lands facing up.

ResearchBlogging.orgBar-Hillel M, Peer E, & Acquisti A (2014). “Heads or tails?”–a reachability bias in binary choice. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 40 (6), 1656-63 PMID: 24773285

The Most Common Biases in Business Decisions

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that one of topics that I write about the most is cognitive biases. So, when I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review that neatly wrapped up some of the more common biases in business decisions, I just had to comment on it.

I agree with just about everything in this table (?), but I’m surprised about one thing: the endowment effect. That is, I’m surprised it’s not listed in the table. Specifically, listed under ‘stability biases’ as this is where it would fit. To refresh your memory:

In short, it means that people want more money for something than they’d be willing to pay for it. Put differently: we overvalue that which we own. You could think of a simple example of this through the course of a negotiation. When negotiation with someone, we’ll probably overvalue what we bring to the table. Someone may offer you $50 for your 25-year old keyboard (piano), but you think it’s worth at least $75. Barring any outside appraisal, the endowment effect is likely at play here.

Given the number of deal-making that takes place on a regular basis, I’m surprised that we didn’t see this as part of the table. It seems to me that in business, when money is often the thing that’s held in the highest regard (for better or for worse), you’d want to have people with the decision-making power understand that they may be overvaluing what’s theirs.

Upon further reflection, I can understand why one may not see it as a “common” bias because in today’s society, (at least in Western cultures), the common transaction is cash for stuff and not stuff for stuff (barter). If bartering were more the name of the game, then I would certainly want to see the endowment effect on that list. Either way, though, it’s certainly worth remembering that we tend to overvalue the stuff we have.

The Sunk Cost Trap on TV: Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope

A few months ago on the popular TV series “Scandal,” the fictional President of the United States fell into the sunk cost trap:

We have to get Olivia back, not just because I love her, not just because having her out there is a threat to national security. There are soldiers who are never coming home because I tried to get her back. Someone’s father, someone’s husband. I have killed so many mothers’ sons trying to get her back. The flags placed on the coffins where they lay are there because they had the courage to give their lives and I did not have the courage to give Liv’s, so she has to come back because their sacrifice damn well has to mean something. They cannot have died for nothing. They cannot have gone to their death for no other reason than I asked them to.

If you’ll remember from my post about the sunk cost trap a couple of years ago:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted.

Do you see the parallels?

Now, I totally get why the writers of Scandal couldn’t have the fictional President of the United States not continue to try and rescue Olivia Pope (how could there be a show without Olivia?), but I wish they didn’t have to write it in this way. In actuality, based on what he’s saying, it sounds like he’s come to the realization that sending more troops to war is a bad idea, so right there — right at the point — is when he should stop sending troops to war. Right then, he has the knowledge that continuing down the same path is the wrong thing to do, so he should stop. His rationalization for continuing is the sunk cost trap.

The thing that worries me is that by having things play out like this, it’s almost affirming that what the President is doing is the “right” thing or that it is the only choice he has. Certainly, there are plenty of other courses of actions he could have chose (many that probably wouldn’t make for good TV). Most people probably won’t find themselves in a situation where they’re forced to continue a war (or start a war, for that matter) for dubious reasons (or any reason, for that matter), but seeing stuff like this on TV, in a way, gives people an idea of how they can do things. I’d much rather popular entertainment actually err on the side of educating viewers, if it’s going to incorporate lessons of this nature.

I can already hear you yelling at me that this doesn’t make for good TV or entertainment (I know, I alluded to that earlier), but can’t we find a way to blend effective decision-making with entertainment, so that while we’re being entertained, we’re also learning something, too?

Is “A” Really the Best Option or is it Just that It’s Better Than “B”: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 18

The other day, someone was talking to me about my series on biases in judgment and decision-making and it made me realize that I was missing a rather important bias — the contrast effect! I’m not sure how this one slipped through the cracks, but I’m glad to be able to write about it for you today.

It’s been almost a year and a half since I wrote something for this series, so let me refresh your memory. Each week, I took a cognitive bias and explained it. I provided an example and then I offered some ways for mitigating that cognitive bias in your own life. So, without further adieu, the contrast effect.

What’s the contrast effect? Well, as with many of the biases, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an effect that occurs because of a comparison. That is, people are more likely to perceive differences that are bigger or smaller because of something they’ve seen first. This is something that is used in sales — all — the — time. If you’re shopping for a new car, the salesperson may show a series of cars that are way out of your price range and then show you one that’s just a little out of your price range. After having seen so many cars that are way out of your price range, the one that’s just a little out of your price range won’t seem that far out of your price range. The contrast effect.

That’s not to pick on folks who sell cars, it can even happen with smaller purchases, shoes, for instances. Let’s say you’re looking for a particular kind of footwear. The salesperson may show you a bunch of shoes that don’t quite fit your needs and happen to be priced rather cheaply. Then, the salesperson shows you a shoe that does fit your needs, but is quite a bit more expensive. As you’ve seen all these shoes that aren’t what you need and now you’ve finally come to one that meets you’re needs, you may ignore the price and buy the shoes.

One of my favourite examples of the contrast effect comes from Dan Ariely‘s book, Predictably Irrational:

One day while browsing the World Wide Web (obviously for work-not just wasting time), I stumbled on the following ad, on the Web site of a magazine, the Economist.


I read these offers one at a time. The first offer-the Internet subscription for $59 seemed reasonable. The second option-the $125 print subscription-seemed a bit expensive, but still reasonable.

But then I read the third option: a print and Internet subscription for $125. I read it twice before my eye ran back to the previous options. Who would want to buy the print option alone, I wondered, when both the Internet and the print subscriptions were offered for the same price? Now, the print- only option may have been a typographical error, but I suspect that the clever people at the Economist‘s London offices (and they are clever-and quite mischievous in a British sort of way) were actually manipulating me. I am pretty certain that they wanted me to skip the Internet- only option (which they assumed would be my choice, since I was reading the advertisement on the Web) and jump to the more expensive option: Internet and print.

But how could they manipulate me? I suspect it’s because the Economist‘s marketing wizards (and I could just picture them in their school ties and blazers) knew something important about human behavior: humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six- cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four- cylinder model.)

In the case of the Economist, I may not have known whether the Internet- only subscription at $59 was a better deal than the print- only option at $125. But I certainly knew that the print and-Internet option for $125 was better than the print- only option at $125. In fact, you could reasonably deduce that in the combination package, the Internet subscription is free! “It’s a bloody steal-go for it, governor!” I could almost hear them shout from the riverbanks of the Thames. And I have to admit; if I had been inclined to subscribe I probably would have taken the package deal myself. (Later, when I tested the offer on a large number of participants, the vast majority preferred the Internet- and- print deal.)

Before we movie into some of the ways for avoiding the Contrast Effect, I wanted to make it clear that sales isn’t the only place where this bias can creep up on us. Another good example is in evaluations (be they interviewing job candidates or marking term papers). If one doesn’t have a rubric by which one is scoring candidates (or papers), it can be easy to slip into the contrast effect: “Well, that candidate was much better than the last candidate, let’s put them through to the next round.” It could be that the latter candidate, while better than the first, still doesn’t meet your criteria to make it the next round, so putting them through would be wasting valuable resources — both yours and theirs.

Ways for Avoiding the Contrast Effect

1) Standardized Evaluation

In our most recent case involving interview candidates or term papers, creating a rubric or standardized method of evaluation prior to examining candidates/papers will go a long way to help one avoid falling into the trap of the contrast effect. This method could also be applied when it comes to shopping (i.e. sales). For instance, let’s say you’re looking for a car. Prior to arriving at the dealership, you could create a table for how you’re going to evaluate the cars you view while at the dealership. In this way, you can guard against the salesperson knowingly (or unknowingly) showing you cars at either end of the spectrum before showing you the cars you might actually purchase.

2) Are There Other Options?

Often times, when we’re succumbing to the contrast effect, we’re looking at option A versus option B. This is why it’s so important to have some sort of standardized evaluation (see #1), but short of a standardized evaluation, it’s important to remember that almost never are those two options your only two options. “Should I get this car or that car?” Well actually, you have another option — neither of those cars. And another option, you could consider buying a bike or maybe taking public transportation. Whenever you find yourself faced with a decision between two options, it can be useful to consider other options, just in case you’ve fallen into the trap of the contrast effect.

Note: the images in this post are all examples of the contrast effect.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

How Smartphones Can Lead to Better Parents

Over three years ago, I wrote a post about cell phone etiquette. At the time I wrote that, I wouldn’t have guessed that three years later, I’d be considering the possibility that smartphones could actually lead to better parents.

But that’s exactly what this post is about.

The stereotype goes that many parents will bring their children to the park (and/or some activity) and upon arriving, they shoo away their children only to peer down at their cell phone. Some folks do this while out to dinner with friends (even though they don’t have kids, see here). Many will cringe upon seeing parents sitting on the bench enwrapped in the goings on of their cell phone. Farhad Manjoo, however, points out how smartphones can actually make for more available parents [Emphasis Added]:

But we rarely consider how, by liberating us from the office, smartphones have greatly expanded the opportunity for certain kinds of workers to increase their involvement in their children’s lives. Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios where, in the past, you’d have had to be totally absent. Even though my son had to yell for my attention once when I was fixed to my phone, if I didn’t have that phone, I would almost certainly not have been able to be with him that day — or at any one of numerous school events or extracurricular activities. I would have been in an office. And he would have been with a caretaker.

Stop and consider that for a moment: having a smartphone can actually make you more available as a parent. Now, this isn’t a commercial for smartphones, but it’s certainly something that should give you pause for consideration. I know it did for me when I read it. This idea put forth from Manjoo is exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say putting a new perspective on things. Someone who is so focused on how smartphones are bad for parents and how they keep parents from their children wouldn’t be able to see the possibility that for a small population, having a smartphone can actually allow a parent to be away from the office and with their children.

This idea isn’t meant to invalidate the idea that smartphones are changing the relationship we have with our children, but the idea that smartphones are allowing us to be with our children more is, to be hyperbolic for a moment, paradigm-altering. A key step to being a better parent is being able to be with your children. So, if smartphones can get us out of the office and next to our kids, isn’t that an important step?


There still might be some of you out there that unequivocally think we shouldn’t be on our phones when we’re with our kids and that’s okay, but I hope that you’ll at least consider (reflect, think about, ponder, etc.) the possibility that the opposite may be true. It’ll put you one step closer to defending against the confirmation bias.

A New Way to Use Pinterest: Financial Charts

I don’t remember when I first signed up for Pinterest, but I do remember that when I did, I had “big” plans of using the site to create a vision board. As you can see from my Pinterest page, I haven’t used it since I signed up. There are any number of explanations I could offer as to why I haven’t really done what I had initially thought I would, but this post isn’t about my usage of Pinterest, no, it’s about Josh Brown’s.

You see, many people (or at least it certainly seems like it) use Pinterest for shopping. That is, they see something they like and Pinterest is a way to bookmark that image. There are also those businesses who use Pinterest to get a better understanding of how their customers like or dislike their products. There are those hobbyists or designers who are trying to showcase their ideas. There are even people who share recipes through Pinterest. In all that I’ve heard of Pinterest, never had I heard someone use it to share financial charts.

Can anyone tell me what this is an example of? Hint: I wrote about this decision-making bias as recently as last month.

Functional Fixedness.

Josh Brown, the person I mentioned earlier, uses Pinterest to bookmark “amazing charts.” These financial charts, in a way, are breaking through that bias of functional fixedness. By using Pinterest to showcase financial charts, Brown found a way to use Pinterest that was a little out of the ordinary.

There are probably dozens of examples of these in your daily lives. On your commute this morning/afternoon (or the next time you head to work), I want you to take a wider perspective and see if you can notice anyone using something in a way that you hadn’t considered. Maybe someone’s using a skateboard as a “wagon” as they’ve tied a string to truck (where the wheels are) and is letting someone pull them down the street. Maybe by watching them participate in what some may consider a dangerous activity, it gives you that flash of an idea you’ve been looking for on a problem you’ve been having. Lateral thinking begets lateral thinking.