What Can We Do About Our Bias?

A 4-step roadmap for developing an always-on, honest relationship to bias.

Buster Benson
Jun 3 · 18 min read

TL;DR —

We can’t avoid our biases. The best we can do is maintain an honest dialogue with our blind spots and commit to identifying and repairing inadvertent damage caused by them as efficiently as possible.

WHAT THIS POST COVERS
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1. Four steps to developing honest bias
2. The 3 Conundrums and 13 strategies that generate biases
3. Example: the 2020 presidential election
4. How to apply this to real life
5. Some things to help you remember

There are many obstacles to seeing things clearly.

🌀 Four Steps to Developing Honest Bias

Step 1: Opt-in. Developing honest bias requires us first and foremost to wake up to our own blindness and to stop trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Only you can decide if you’re up for the challenge of taking it on.

🙅‍♂️ What not to do 🙅‍♀️
There’s no way to become completely unbiased. All of the steps to develop honest bias are about continuous maintenance rather than one-time and permanent fixes. The temptation to seek permanent fixes is great (believe me, I’ve looked for them too), but the 3 conundrums don’t have permanent fixes. If you think you’ve found one, or are on its track and will catch it any day now, check yourself. There’s a good chance that it’s intended to resolve your anxiety about the problem rather than fix the problem itself. See the shortcut “treat experience as reality” below. Focus on openness, responsiveness, and maintenance instead.

The 3 Conundrums & 13 Strategies That Generate Biases

No matter what we do, we can’t escape these conundrums, but 13 strategies help us think within their constraints.

3 CONUNDRUMS
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🧠 1. There’s too much information (so we must filter it).🧡 2. There’s not enough meaning (so we use stories to make sense).🖐 3. There’s not enough time (so we motivate towards action).
13 STRATEGIES
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🧠 1-5 HELP US FILTER INFORMATION1. We depend on the context to figure out what to notice and remember.2. We accept what comes to mind, and don’t worry much about what doesn’t come to mind.3. We amplify bizarre things.4. We notice novelty.5. We seek takeaways to remember and toss the rest.
🧡 6-10 HELP US MAKE SENSE OF THINGS6. We fill in the gaps with stereotypes and generalities.7. We favor familiar things over the non-familiar.8. We treat experience as reality.9. We simplify mental math.10. We are overconfident in everything we do.
11-13 HELP US GET THINGS DONE11. We stick with things we’ve started.12. We protect existing beliefs.13. We will opt to do the safe things, all other things being equal.

Example: The 2020 Presidential Election

Let’s use the example of the upcoming 2020 presidential election to see how each of these strategies could impact how we decide who to vote for.

All 26 people running for president in 2020.

Strategy 1: Depend on the context

Related biases: Cathedral effect, Focalism, Generation effect, Levels of processing effect, Magic number 7+-2, Misattribution of memory, Next-in-line effect, Picture superiority effect, Self-relevance effect, Spacing effect, Testing effect, Tip of the tongue phenomenon. Learn more…

Strategy 2: Accept what comes to mind

Related biases: Attentional bias, Availability heuristic, Change blindness, Cryptomnesia, Cue-dependent forgetting, Frequency illusion, Source confusion, Survivorship bias. Learn more...

Strategy 3: Amplify the bizarre

Related biases: Bizarreness effect, Negativity bias, Publication bias, Von Restorff effect. Learn more...

Strategy 4: Notice novelty

Related biases: Anchoring, Appeal to novelty, Contrast effect, Decoy effect, Distinction bias, Framing effect, Weber–Fechner law. Learn more...

Strategy 5: Seek takeaways

Related biases: Duration neglect, Leveling and sharpening, Memory inhibition, Misinformation effect, Modality effect, Part-list cueing effect, Peak–end rule, Primacy effect, Recency effect, Serial position effect, Serial recall effect. Learn more...

Strategy 6: Fill in the gaps

Related biases: Anthropomorphism, Apophenia, Argument from fallacy, Clustering illusion, Confabulation, Conjunction fallacy, Essentialism, Functional fixedness, Gambler’s fallacy, Group attribution error, Hot-hand fallacy, Identifiable victim effect, Illusion of validity, Illusory correlation, Implicit stereotypes, Insensitivity to sample size, Just-world hypothesis, Murphy’s Law, Pareidolia, Placebo effect, Prejudice, Recency illusion, Self-licensing, Stereotyping. Learn more...

Strategy 7: Favor the familiar

Related biases: Armchair fallacy, Attribute substitution, Bandwagon effect, Cheerleader effect, Conservatism, Continued influence effect, Cross-race effect, Declinism, Defensive attribution hypothesis, Extrinsic incentive error, Fading affect bias, Fundamental attribution error, Halo effect, Hyperbolic discounting, Illusion of asymmetric insight, Illusion of external agency, Illusory superiority, Illusory truth effect, In-group bias, Law of the instrument, Mere exposure effect, Not invented here, Omission bias, Optimism bias, Out-group homogeneity bias, Pessimism bias, Positivity effect, Pseudocertainty effect, Reactive devaluation, Rosy retrospection, Sapir Whorf Korzybski hypothesis, Suggestibility, Ultimate attribution error, Well-traveled road effect. Learn more...

Strategy 8: Treat experience as reality

Related biases: Abilene paradox, Affective forecasting, Bias blind spot, Curse of knowledge, Egocentric bias, Empathy gap, False consensus effect, Illusion of control, Illusion of transparency, Immune neglect, Impact bias, Moral luck, Naïve cynicism, Naïve realism, Pro-innovation bias, Projection bias, Self-consistency bias, Spotlight effect, Time discounting. Learn more...

Strategy 9: Simplify mental math

Related biases: Appeal to probability, Base rate fallacy, Denomination effect, Extension neglect, Hindsight bias, Masked man fallacy, Mental accounting, Money illusion, Neglect of probability, Normalcy bias, Outcome bias, Planning fallacy, Subadditivity effect, Swimmer’s body illusion, Telescoping effect, Time-saving bias, Zero sum bias, Zero-risk bias. Learn more...

Strategy 10: Be overconfident

Related biases: Barnum effect, Dunning-Kruger effect, Hard-easy effect, Lake Wobegone effect, Overconfidence effect, Restraint bias, Risk compensation, Self-serving bias, Social desirability bias, Third-person effect, Trait ascription bias. Learn more...

Strategy 11: Stick with it

Related biases: Chesterton’s fence, Disposition effect, Effort justification, Endowment effect, IKEA effect, Information bias, Loss aversion, Social comparison bias, Status quo bias, Sunk cost fallacy, System justification, Unit bias. Learn more...

Strategy 12: Protect existing beliefs

Related biases: Backfire effect, Belief bias, Bucket error, Choice-supportive bias, Confirmation bias, Congruence bias, Escalation of commitment, Law of narrative gravity, Observer-expectancy effect, Ostrich effect, Post-purchase rationalization, Reactance, Selective perception, Semmelweis reflex, Subjective validation. Learn more...

Strategy 13: Do the safe thing

Related biases: Ambiguity effect, Authority bias, Automation bias, Law of triviality, Less-is-better effect, Occam’s razor, Rhyme as reason effect. Learn more...

How to Apply All of This to Real Life

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and have found that the main challenge isn’t about information recall. It’s about shifting the way you think about blind spots and bias from “1-time quick fixes” to “always-on repair and maintenance”. This is a tough switch to flip in our heads because as you’ve seen from the strategies, we overvalue easy takeaways and undervalue inconvenient truths. You can see the same pattern with dieting and exercise. The best way to be healthy is to eat whole foods, exercise frequently, get enough sleep, and be kind to yourself and others. But that’s not the answer we want! We want a new gimmicky diet and exercise plan that will provide instant results, and keep falling for marketing that promises these things even though we know they don’t really exist.

Step 1: Opt-in to honest bias

Applying “honest bias” requires us first and foremost to wake up to our own blindness and to stop trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. This means letting go of the false belief of permanent fixes and being open to answers that aren’t in the initial set of easy answers you had in mind. Only you can decide if you’re up for the challenge of taking it on.

Step 2: Observe (beginner level)

  • Broaden your social circle. Each of us has our own set of natural biases that systemically overvalue and undervalue information based on our own motivations. If our social circles are diverse, no blind spots will have 100% coverage and can be brought to attention by someone in the group.

Step 3: Repair (intermediate level)

13 BLIND SPOTS TO QUESTION:
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1. Out of context: What have I missed because options were hidden from my particular circumstances and context in the moment?2. Out of mind: What have I not considered because they just didn’t come to mind at the time?3. Lackluster: What have I missed because something else immediately grabs my attention when I think about this?4. Expired: What options have I neglected because they didn't present themselves as shiny and new?5. Irrelevant: What have I undervalued because it didn't fit my expectations as a proper take-away?6. Untypical: What options have I not seen in their true light because I projected stereotypes and generalities onto them?7. Unfamiliar: What have I passed over simply because it didn't feel familiar to me?8. Unrelatable: What options have fallen to the wayside because they didn't match my own personal experiences?9. Ambiguous: What options have I dismissed because they felt less certain or more risky in the moment?10. Underestimated: What have I ignored or neglected because I overestimated my ability to control certain situations?11. Costly: What options have I dismissed because they would require changing course from previous decisions?12. Threatening: What have I dismissed because I wasn't ready to accept that I might be wrong?13. Unpopular: What options have been pushed aside because I felt gathering consensus would put me at risk in some way?

Step 4: Normalize (Advanced level)

  • Normalize honest bias: Help make the idea of honest bias the default response to systemic problems. Instead of trying to avoid, ignore, or permanently fix these problems, introduce the idea of always-on maintenance and repair to every niche discipline.

Some Things to Help You Remember

If you decide to go with this roadmap, here are a few ideas for how to get it to stick.

Feel free to print this out or get the fancy poster version!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Buster Benson

Written by

Author of Why Are We Yelling?, a book about the art of productive disagreement. I run 750words.com. Previously product at Patreon, Slack, Twitter, and Amazon.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.