Cognitive bias: social effects


Photograph of Salvador Dali and Gala Elouard; author unknown.

Cognitive bias: social effects

In the line of psychology, one very interesting domain preoccupies itself with what is called cognitive biases- subconscious mental errors which affect human perception and their decision-making process, causing them to draw incorrect conclusions in regards to other people and situations, creating  a subjective social reality. Stemming from the way individuals simplify certain information processing, these biases are not related to one’s emotional or intellectual affinities, but rather on how individuals make decisions based on ambiguous or incomplete information. As such, they affect judgments and actions in areas such as evaluation, causal perception, estimation and retrospection. (CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence n.d.)

It is based in the study of heuristics, that is simple cognitive rules that are employed when reasoning, simplyfing or guessing, which limits the search for solutions in poorly-understood domains, thus giving results which have no theoretical guarantee. As such, this line of study has been often used in domains such as cognitive psychology, social psychology and social cognition.  ( n.d.)

Cognitive biases have, so far, been grouped in four main areas: memory biases, decision-making biases, probability/belief biases and finally social biases, (Fernandez 2010) which will be focused upon in this article. Most of these biases are rooted in the bigger category of attribution biases, which imply the fact that a disproportionate amount of information is used to draw a more general conclusion, wherein inanimate factors (such as situations, systems, greater causal relationships etc.) are glanced over in favor of animate (human) ones. (wiseGeek n.d.)

There are countless examples of such biases, not only in general, but especially in the domain of social cognitive biases. To enumerate a few:

  • The Actor/Observer Effect: perspective influences the way a person perceives an event- an “actor” (seen here as an active participant in an event) is able to explain his actions situationally, while an “observer” of an event explains other people’s actions dispositionally (in relation to personal causes), “that the situation engulfs the field of the actor, whereas the person engulfs the field of the observer”. (Robins, Spranca and Mendelsohn 1996)
  • Correspondence Bias: the tendency to draw long-lasting conclusions about someone’s enduring traits purely from situational events. (Gilbert and Malone 1995)
  • In-group Bias: the tendency to treat people in a preferential manner because they are perceived to be part of one’s own group; or to treat people who are not perceived as belonging to one’s group negatively. (Fernandez 2010)
  • Self-Serving Bias: a description of success is attributed to the self, while a failure is described as being caused by external factors. (Miller and Ross 1975)
  • False Consensus Effect: happens when individuals believe that the consensus matches their own opinions regardless of its contents; similarly, false uniqueness describes the belief that one is unique in a given respect, misjudging their similarity to others. ( n.d.)
  • Ultimate Attribution Error: an expansion of the Fundamental Attribution Error, this bias occurs when an in-group blames an out-group’s negative actions dispositionally, seeing positive examples of the out-group as exceptions and ignoring the in-group’s own negative behavior; is often used in analyzing antagonistic tendencies between different demographics such as ethnic groups, sexes, social classes etc. (Guy n.d.)
  • Illusory Correlation: the belief that two unrelated events are associated with one another when there is no actual basis for making the assumption. ( n.d.)
  • Projection Bias: the tendency to believe that others have the same values, beliefs, emotions, thoughts and abilities. (Evatt n.d.)
  • Just World Phenomenon: the belief that “people get what they deserve”, in accordance to a world that functions on order, predictability and justice. (Andre and Velasquez n.d.)
  • Herd Instinct: the adoption of opinions and behaviors of a majority group in order to feel safe and to avoid conflict (Fernandez 2010).

While I have only briefly touched on these subjects, the implications of the above concepts, while applied to one’s self, might sound a bit terrifying. But, if anything, any kind of knowledge on this vastly complicated subject may help better understanding of one’s and other’s self, actions and thought processes. Any kind of insight on complex interpersonal interaction ultimately helps us better decipher our surrounding world, hopefully without any kind of bias.

Nota bene: Or is it possible to have a bias while judging things in the key of cognitive bias? Hmm… I’ll name that The Cognitive Bias Bias. Somebody call Oxford, quick.

Flavia Dima

Journalism Year III

Works Cited

Andre, Claire, and Manuel Velasquez. The Just World Theory . n.d.

CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence. What Are Cognitive Biases? n.d.

Evatt, Cris. The Projection Bias . n.d.

Fernandez, Eric. Cognitive biases – a visual study guide. April 28, 2010.

Gilbert, Daniel T., and Patrick S. Malone. “The Correspondence Bias.” Psychological Bulletin, vol 117, 1995: 21-38.

Guy, Hannah. Ultimate Attribution Error. n.d. Heuristics and heuristic evaluation . n.d.

Miller, Dale T., and Michael Ross. “Self-Serving Biases in the Attribution of Causality: Fact or Fiction?” Psychological Bulletin, 1975: 213-225. Illusory Correlation. n.d. False Consensus & False Uniqueness. n.d.

Robins, Richard W., Mark D. Spranca, and Gerald A. Mendelsohn. “The Actor-Observer Effect Revisited: Effects of Individual Differences and Repeated Social Interactions on Actor and Observer Attributions.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996: 375-389.

wiseGeek. What is Attribution Bias? n.d.


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