I’m a natural scientist. I’ve been studying natural phenomena in a chemistry laboratory for about four years now. Social science, on the other hand, is pretty new to me. To communicate ideas about science to PEOPLE, I need to understand social science.
As I’m learning, this is an entirely new ballgame. You’re dealing with people, here.
When I study natural phenomena, I can somewhat predict what is going to happen. In chemistry, A + B react to make C +D + whatever else.
When I study people, their behavior, their actions, etc. aren’t predictable like a chemical reaction is. And I know what you’re thinking, people can be explosive, and chemical reactions are explosive, right? NO, not at all chemical reactions are explosive. -_- If they were, then you wouldn’t be alive right now. But that’s off topic.
Here’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned about ALL people, something that we ALL are guilty of…
All people (that includes you) are BIASED.
I’ve only taken one graduate level course on social science, specifically in science communication. While I don’t proclaim to be an expert on biases, I have learned about a few types that have really stood out to me so far.
I’ll present these biases in the form of questions.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone over something you knew you were right about, looked it up, found out that you might be wrong, but you kept arguing for your original point anyway?
This is called confirmation bias. When you fail to consider an alternative hypothesis, you’re guilty of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias can be terrible. It can prevent people from seeing the truth. Someone can be so hung up on proving themselves right about nearly anything, that they will fail to accept any other alternative.
Recognize this personal shortcoming, but don’t let it paralyze you. Maybe you shouldn’t be so confident about that thing you thought you were absolutely right about without considering alternative explanations?
I challenge you to test your ideas by searching for disconfirming evidence – evidence that goes against what you think or believe. This will facilitate open-minded thinking.
The goal isn’t to prove yourself wrong, or change your beliefs. I find that when I search for disconfirming evidence, I learn WAY MORE about my original idea than I had anticipated. This can help me strengthen my argument even further. Worst case scenario, I learn about something that I never thought of before, and THAT’S rewarding.
Have you ever watched mainstream media on television, which is blatantly spreading polarizing claims about this or that politician, and you think to yourself, “Man, I feel bad for the people who believe this stuff?”
If so, then you have a blind-spot bias. Blind-spot bias refers to the extent to which we see bias in others others versus the ones we see in ourselves. Raise your hand if you’re guilty. My hand is certainly in the air!
This one is particularly interesting to me because it is a bias about BIAS!
It’s difficult to recognize that we’re basically all guilty of this, but it’s even harder to prevent it from happening. Rather than do that, simply pay more attention to when it might pop up under certain circumstances. Why do you think it happens in these situations? Make a mental note.
Have you ever been in a weight-loss phase, your weight steadily dropping over 6 weeks? But then, the last two times you weighed yourself, your weight was abnormally high. You think, “All my progress is meaningless, I’ll never lose the weight!”
This is referred to as endpoint bias. Endpoint bias explains the tendency for humans to place more mental emphasis on recent events or occurrences rather than previous ones to predict future events or occurrences. Do you see the problem here?
There was an overall downward trend in your weight, so why did you get all bent out of shape when the most recent numbers didn’t follow quite right? It’s because you’re biased!
When you’re looking at data that is supposed to change over time, also called trend data, look at the trend! It’s in the name! Don’t consider a single event to predict the future. I could relate this bias to a lot of other issues that we all have a tendency to misinterpret, but you get the point (no pun intended).
Whatever bias(es) that you might have, whether you’re aware of them or not, know that you’re not the only one. In fact, no one, not even the smartest person you know, can escape their own personal biases. The best way to deal with them is to recognize them for that they are, and call them out in yourself when you see them.
You get better at this the more you practice, and this forces you to keep an open mind about a lot of things. In turn, by challenging your brain like this, you continue to learn, grow, and level up.
We’re all a little bit biased.
References for further reading
Mynatt, Clifford R., Michael E. DOherty, and Ryan D. Tweney. (1977). Confirmation bias in a simulated research environment: an experimental study of scientific inference. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 29(1), 85-95.
Pronin, Emily. (2008). How we see ourselves and how we see others. Science, 320, 1177-1180.
Davidson, W. Phillips (1983). The third-person effect in communication, Public Opinion Quarterly, 47(1), 1-15.
Frederickson, B. L., and Kahneman, D. (1993). Duration neglect in retrospective evaluations of affective episodes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6(1), 45-55.
Howard, M. W., and Kahana, M. J., (2002). A distributed representation of temporal context. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 46, 269-299.