Saturday, April 15, 2023


Bias, Pro and Anti      

“[Mr. Palmer’s] temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)   
Part I  

Expected distortions

Look at the above image, the St. Louis Gateway Arch.  The Gateway is the world’s tallest arch, at 630 feet from ground to apex.  But it is equally wide, also at 630 feet, from base to base.  However, what we see with our own eyes is its height, not width. This is because the brain is preconditioned to this bias, shaped by factors lying below conscious awareness. These factors systematically bias how and what we think we understand about anything we are looking at.  Including how tall it is.

The arch appears much taller than it is wide because the human brain is systematically biased toward the vertical, seeing lines going upward as longer than horizontals. This bias rules our common-sense perception all the time across many estimating situations.  This ibias is inbuilt, the kind we should know about from perception studies in order to recalibrate the judgments we make about things in the world.  Determining how things actually are, as well as how they are most likely to end up over time, is also swayed by our human tendency to be wishful rather than wise (James Reason, Human Error).   We must apply conscious attention and evaluation to understand and correct for our natural misperceptions as they distort the real state of the world.

In the same way, culture determines how we view our moral and social world by determining a long-living set of values.  Consider another well-known optical illusion: The Shepard tables (source: Wikipedia).

  This predictable perceptual bias activates “size-constancy expansion,” the illusory expansion of space with implied distance.  In reality, these tables are the same size, but our unconscious rules of thumb say otherwise.  We have to apply conscious reasoning to understand and correct for our mental distortions—our naturally biased thinking. It is one of several size and distance errors. 


Beyond spatial illusions, we think about bias as unfair judgment—aimed improperly or maliciously at people or groups—that results in social injustice and discrimination, and therefore is unjustified and abusive.

However, it is harder to claim bias damage when the same negative disfavoring bias targets terrorists, pedophiles, mass murderers, fraudsters, criminals, or Nazis (a group that has well and truly been dehumanized).  Can anyone really be blamed for having negative bias against such bad actors?  Or accusations of injustice?  Or cruelty and malfeasance toward animals?  How about newly identified misuse of wild animals, trees, or the environment in general?

The adopted meaning can be applied to describe an attitude toward people, things, situations, and moral reasoning. Systematic bias is an overall mental and emotional valence driving decision-making and action, creating outcomes that shape our further decisions and behavior.  Bias is seen as an intolerant and pejorative assessment of others for their behavior and the effects of that behavior. 


However, cognitive science has a more general and neutral meaning, with a direction either positive or negative.   Examples, starting with the 1970s, begin with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who first identified heuristics, or rules of thumb (anchoring availability, and representativeness), and the thinking biases that drives each one.  “Heuristics and biases” explain why human judgment is consistently less than rational, Herbert Simon’s “bounded rationality.”  Judgment, planning, and action stem from the Automatic System (emotional) rather than the rational Reflective System (rational), a dialectic  proposed by Thaler and Sunstein in 2008.   

Positive bias 

So bias is simply a leaning in one direction at the expense of another, a leaning that directs thinking and action, designed to achieve a desired state and thereby avoiding an undesired state. 

Therefore, a bias toward waking early to get things done, and one against waiting until late in the day, is an achievement technique.  The pro bias is a way to avoid procrastinating and leaving the work schedule too open to interruptions.  The pro bias implies an aversion to situations that make working for goals more difficult and less certain of success.  This aversion bias, the later one, is the natural correlative of the pro bias, the earlier preference.  It mitigates against leaving tasks to later in the day or evening hours when energy and willpower tend to lag (dinner and wine being enemies of focused productivity).  The pro bias in the original impetus duels with the anti or aversion bias, so both work in tandem and reciprocate the other.  The anti-bias has to be understood not alone but in terms of its corollary pro version as a byproduct or outcome. 

Choice Architecture is the way our decision-making is framed.  Good choices rely on reliable and solid truth assessment—yet our thinking is systematically shaped, or biased, in certain directions that favor ideals or images of ourselves (and less favorably toward others).  One example is the planning fallacy, familiar to all project managers, which describes the bias leading to over-optimism about the time and money a given project will require.  This is a positive bias leading to costly overruns in schedule and budget.  Even a small home improvement can involve this fallacy.  Drivers rate themselves as above-average.  Teachers and students inflate their own performance and potential achievements.  Newlyweds believe their marriage will defy the divorce rate of around one out of two (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Entrepreneurs, also, think they have a 90% success potential—whereas half fail within 5 years (BLS). From the 1950s, psychologists began to acknowledge the futility of assuming that consumers know exactly what they want and the price they should pay to buy it. 

These are illusions, wishful thinking driven by positive bias that leads us to underestimate risk as we overestimate chance and luck in forecasting rewards rather than financial and competitive pitfalls.

Negative Bias

Think of racism, Islamophobic thinking, provincialism, ableism, class prejudice, religious bigotry, gender politics, and ageism.  These don’t flourish in a vacuum, but are natural outcomes of our human tendency to favor and select for ourselves and our home group—blood ties and extended family--over other groups (“Charity begins at home,” one of my favorite aphorisms).  This emotional edict is at the heart of all group cohesion.  G. K. Chesterton reflected that “The true soldier fights not because he hates the soldier in front of him, but that he loves the country behind him.” 

What we think of as the negatively directed bias is the flip side of a positive approach or preference for the ideal state of things – the “should” of a cultural outlook.  This emotional valence is a type of preference for the safety and familiarity of the hard-wired known social universe over time.  This preference is an example of the “bounded rationality” proposed by Herbert Simon – the cognitive limitations imposed by context, the brain, experience, information access, and memory, as well as invested with strong emotional biases based on big values. This concept can explain why we don’t actively seek out the diverse or aberrant in our search for family, friends, and colleagues, in the mandate of DEI diversity programs, preferring the control of private spaces to public ones.

Our home-base preference, rather than any active antipathy for others unlike ourselves, gives rise to what looks like anti bias.  It helps to recall too how much time and attention are required for the maintenance of simple socializing with family, coworkers, and friends, leaving little time and attention for people unrelated to us by these roles.  When we go on vacation trips in-country or abroad, to see new sights, dine on new foods, and people-watch, our close family circle travels with us.   And consider the ever-increasing pressures on our scarce available time that make even family time ever more difficult to find. reports the average family spends 37 minutes “quality time” together on weekdays, one of the reasons families must break out of their routines for the time together on vacation.

Understanding these preferred states helps profile our “bad” biases as the consequence of the “good” or virtuous bias that makes us human—and as a shared thinking style, defines our culture as the main influencer of daily choices we need to make about who gets our care and attention.  This approach redefines bias away from rational fallibility or moral failing to see it as the outcome of our evolution as highly social creatures—creatures who are also highly territorial around social as well as physical and mental space.