What Is Bias?

A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone. Some biases are positive and helpful—like choosing to only eat foods that are considered healthy, or staying away from someone who has knowingly caused harm. But biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance. Whether positive or negative, such cognitive shortcuts can result in prejudgments that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.

The most common examples of unfair bias are based on stereotypes about another person's race, ethnicity, genderreligion, or sexuality. This type of bias can have harmful real-world outcomes, and can also increase susceptibility to “stereotype threat,” the phenomenon in which people behave in certain ways to avoid confirming a common stereotype about their own particular group.

Even people who are not deliberately prejudicial may have what’s known as implicit biases, or biases formed from lifelong societal input that escape conscious detection. Paying attention to helpful biases—while keeping negative, prejudicial, or accidental biases in check—requires a delicate balance between self-protection and empathy for others.

The Brain's Bias

A category of biases, known as cognitive biases, are repeated patterns of thinking that lead to inaccurate or unreasonable conclusions. Confirmation bias, for example, refers to the brain’s tendency to search for and focus on information that supports what someone already believes, while ignoring facts that go against those beliefs, despite their relevance. Attribution bias, on the other hand, occurs when someone tries to attribute reasons or motivations to the actions of others without concrete evidence to support such assumptions. Cognitive biases may help people make quicker decisions, but those decisions aren’t always accurate. When assessing research—or even one's own thoughts and behaviors—it’s important to be aware of cognitive biases, and attempt to counter their effects whenever possible.  

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