Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

The title of this post is the same as the title to an informative and important book by Mazarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald. Dr. Banaji was a doctoral student to Dr. Greenwald when he was at Ohio State University. Dr. Greenwald has since moved on to Washington University in Seattle.

Blindspot refers to something we cannot see. We all have a blind spot in each of our eyes. The blind spot occurs where the optic nerve enters the retina. We are unaware of this blind spot because our mind fills in this gap for us. A demonstration of this blind spot can be found by going to the wikipedia. There are blind spots on each side of our cars. Fortunately, technology is available to help us fill in these blind spots.

The authors use the term mindbugs to explain mental blind spots. Mindbugs are ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions. Two famous mindbugs, identified by the psychologists Kahneman and Tversky are availability and anchoring. Examples of the availability heuristic follow.
Consider the following the question: Each year do more people in the United States die from cause (a) or cause (b)?

1, (a) murder (b) diabetes
2. (a) murder (b) suicide
3. (a) car accidents (b) abdominal cancer

When instances of one type of event come more easily to mind than those of another type, we tend to assume that the first event must also occur more frequently in the world. Murder is more likely to receive media attention than both suicide and diabetes, so it is more likely to be judged as more frequently occurring. Similarly car accidents receive more attention that deaths from abdominal cancer, a common cause of death

A behavioral economist at MIT, Dan Ariely, asked students to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number on a piece of paper. Then he asked them to estimate the price of a keyboard, a trackball, or a design book, items easily familiar to MIT students. Then he computed a correlation between their numbers and their price estimates. There was a significant correlation between their numbers and their estimates, a correlation that did not exist in objective reality. This is an example of anchoring. In the absence of anything better, these students were using their digits to make their estimates. The lower their numbers the lower the estimates for each object.

There are also social mindbugs, to which the remainder of the book is devoted. Other members of our species are significant to us in ways that little else in the physical world can compete with. And the primate brain has evolved to pay special attention to others of its kind, and one way in which we do this is to routinely try to predict what might go on in the minds of others.

New research suggests that selective brain regions appear to be active when we imagine the thoughts of another person (Does she believe in Christ the Savior?) and when we try to predict the actions of others (Will he allow our temple to be safe?). These same brain regions do not seem to care when we contemplate the physical aspects of others, such as their height, weight, or eye color. This suggests that the brain has evolved specific regions to help with the tasks of social thinking and feeling. In other words, minds matter to us enough that regions of neural real estate are uniquely engaged for the purpose of making social meaning.

Here’s an experiment you might do with six friends. Ask a group of three of these friends (randomly chosen from the six) to give three reasons why they love their romantic partners, and ask the other three friends to give nine reasons why they love their romantic partners. Then ask both groups of friends this single question: “How satisfied are you with your relationship” Research suggests the those asked to write only three reasons report greater happiness with their partner and their relationship than hose asked to write nine reasons. On second thought, since the result is already known, and you should not want to interfere in the relationships of your friends, do not do this experiment.

The explanation for this result is counterintuitive but simple: Which of us can easily come up with nine good qualities of a partner? The authors write, “Even canonization requires only two miracles!” Those asked to come up with nine reasons have to work harder to come up with them, and it prompts this thought: “Hmm, that was hard! Is it possible my partner isn’t as wonderful as I’d managed?” The researcher that actually conducted this experiment, Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan—found that even important and familiar affections are susceptible to the availability bias.

We constantly need to make such judgments such as is this person trustworthy? Will this person be competent for the job? Could this person be difficult to get along with? Using whatever we can to eke out from even the most trivial information, we make assessments within a few seconds or even fractions of a second, and without any visible discomfort at having to do so. We’re able to make these assessments because of social mindbugs.

Social mindbugs can give us both false feelings of faith in people we perhaps shouldn’t trust and the opposite—feelings of distrust towards those who we should trust.

Social mindbugs affect decisions not only about others but also about ourselves. Becca Levy conducted a study at Yale’s School of Public Health and found a stunning correlation. The negative beliefs about the elderly that elderly people themselves held when they were young predicted their vulnerability to heart disease than they became older. The authors write, “This result emerged even after controlling for other factors such as depression, smoking, and family history. We take such evidence as suggestive that stereotypes can be harmful not just to others we assess and evaluated, but also to ourselves.

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