5.4 What is Bias? – Definition & Types

Jan 13, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch5 Decision Making & Reasoning in Psychology

Through this lesson, you will learn how to define bias and explore a brief introduction to some of the types that exist in psychology and the social sciences. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with a short quiz.

What Is Bias?

Imagine that your neighbor has invited you to see his child’s school play and, since you like the child, you agree to go. After sitting through the play, everyone who attended is handed a score sheet and asked to score each child’s performance on a scale of 1 through 10. Although this is a hypothetical scenario, the odds are fairly good that you would give your neighbor’s child a higher score, not because she was the best, but because you have a personal relationship with her, and you like her.

In this hypothetical situation, the preference shown for your neighbor’s child is what is known as bias, which is a lack of objectivity or an inclination to favor one thing or person over another. For example, if Joe hires a man for a particular job because he believes that men are better workers than women, he could accurately be described as having a bias against women in the workplace. Depending on whom you ask, bias can have a very complicated definition, but in the simplest terms, it means that you have a one-sided point of view about something, which tends to influence decisions and opinions about other things.

Who Experiences Bias?

Biases affect nearly every part of our social lives, from harmless acts, like favoring your children over others, to problematic or dangerous biases, like believing that white people are superior to other races. For instance, in the the Jim Crow South, racial bias led to African Americans being segregated and treated differently than white people. While it is possible that neither of those apply to you, it is important to remember that everyone, no matter how objective a person you may be, has a biased opinion about something.

Although bias tends to be associated with negative outcomes, such as gender or racial biases, it is not always quite so serious or detrimental. For example, being biased when it comes to one’s own children would probably be considered a good thing because it improves bonding.

Types of Bias

Because bias influences so many different parts of our lives, researchers in psychology and sociology have identified several different types of bias in order to differentiate one from the other. While it would be impossible to cover all of them in this lesson, the following five types should help you to understand the different ways in which our lives are affected by bias.

1.) Attentional Bias: Attentional bias is the way that our recurring thoughts affect our perception. For example, if you have recently bought a new car that you love and are proud of, you might begin to notice other people driving the same car, whereas you wouldn’t have noticed this before you got the car. This effect is related to the fact that your new car is on your mind after having bought it, and it is affecting your perception, particularly what you do and do not notice around you.

2.) Confirmation bias: Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret or remember things so that they align with your own beliefs or values. If Jill was a terribly anxious person, for example, she might hear a news report about a rise in crime rates and become convinced that her chances of being murdered have just tripled. In this case, it wouldn’t matter that the rise in crime is related to shoplifting in another state, because confirmation bias has caused her to hear only the pieces of the news story that confirm what she already believes to be true, while blocking out the disconfirming information.

3.) Negativity bias: Although it is fairly self-explanatory, negativity bias is the tendency to focus or remember only the negative aspects of experiences. People who possess a negativity bias tend to over-focus on bad things, which clouds their ability to see or remember good things.

4.) Social comparison bias: One of the more harmful types, social comparison bias is the tendency to make decisions regarding another person based on how he compares to you. For example, if a wife introduces her husband to two new friends that happen to be a man and woman, he might discourage her from socializing with the man because he feels threatened or is worried that the new friend is in some ways better than him.

5.) Gambler’s fallacy: The gambler’s fallacy is a type of bias that affects our perception of probability in certain circumstances. If Bob was a person who was affected by gambler’s fallacy and had just lost on ten lottery tickets, he would probably go back and buy ten more based on the belief that, because he had just lost ten times, the odds of his winning must have improved dramatically, even though the actual probability is much lower.

Lesson Summary

In a social context, bias is a lack of objectivity or inclination to favor a person or idea, regardless of the facts. Although they are often associated with negative influences, biases touch nearly every aspect of our lives, from our family relationships to our feelings about politics and social issues.

In the fields of psychology and sociology, researchers have begun to identify different types of biases in order to analyze them individually or set them apart from the others. While there are many different types of biases, the following are some of the more common:

  • Attentional bias, which is a type of bias in which recurring thoughts affect a person’s perception
  • Confirmation bias, which causes a person to interpret or remember only aspects of experiences that confirm or validate his beliefs
  • Negativity bias, which causes a person to remember or over-focus on only negative aspects of an experience
  • Social comparison bias, which causes a person to make decisions based on how he compares to others
  • Gambler’s fallacy, which is a bias that affects our perception of probability in certain circumstances
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