Cognitive Psychology in the Wild: Bias and Moral Mayhem

You are biased.

Does it sting to hear that? Do you become bristly and defensive? That’s understandable. In our world being biased generally has a negative connotation, as it suggests that you are knowingly skewing the truth. In the past five years cognitive psychology has shown us that this version of bias only captures part of the picture; only the tip of the iceberg.

We are all biased, and we probably don’t even know it.

Before we get to that conclusion, I will briefly outline a few historical milestones in Cognitive Psychology that got us there. First, in 1977 Shiffrin and Schneider demonstrated the distinction between automatic and controlled processes in the brain. An example of a controlled process is learning to read when you’re a child. You have to learn that these curves and lines come together to make a letter, and that letter combines with others to make a sound, and then those make up words, and sentences, and finally coherent ideas. This is very effortful at first and it takes us a long time to read a sentence when we are new to this. Learning to drive is another great example.


However, as we get older we become very good at reading (and driving too, hopefully). In fact, it becomes automatic! You are looking at these words I’m typing right now and you don’t see lines and curves and sounds – you just understand what the words mean without going through all the steps. In fact, it’s very hard for you NOT to read now. Seriously, stop reading! Just kidding, but also why are you still reading?

This distinction between controlled and automatic processes opened the door to a whole new field of research on processes that may not be in our conscious awareness. Implicit bias is a bias we may have that is automatic and not explicitly expressed by us. For example, you may have a bias towards something and specifically believe wholeheartedly that you don’t. The IAT (Implicit Association Task) was established in 1998, and it quickly became an easy to administer and popular way to establish cognitive biases.

The IAT basically works by forcing you to categorize words or images based on rules. How well or easily you follow those rules gives us a window into your biases. A task for establishing bias against a particular political party might ask you to click the right key for any word that has to do with Republicans (e.g. “Trump”, “conservative”), or any words with a positive connotation (e.g. “great”, “beneficial”, “lovely”). Then in the same round they would ask you to hit the left key for any Democrat-related word, or any word with a negative connotation. They do many rounds of this task with various rules.


Then they analyze speed to categorize the words based on the rules and error rate. The assumption of the task is that if you are quicker and better at pairing Republican-related words and positive words then you have a positive bias towards the Republican party, and vice versa for a Democratic bias. IATs have been concocted for everything from racism to gender and science. The results: we are all pretty biased, according to the IAT. Go take a quick online test for yourself if you want to see.

Even people who would claim to view white and black people as equals in every way show significant biases in race association tasks in which they are asked to pair white or black faces with pos/neg words.

“Well that’s a bummer” you might say, “we’re all so prejudiced!” You are probably not wrong in this statement, but it is important to note that implicit biases are not necessarily explicit ones. We may have these associations, but what do they actually mean in the world? Well Payne and Cameron (2010) lay out for us a number of ways that it appears these implicit notions cross the threshold into explicit bias. Employment decisions are an obvious one: it has been shown that resumes with a white, male sounding name at the top are much more likely to result in a call for interview than one with a black, female sounding name, all other things (like experience and education) equal.


Ooops. Yeah, that’s pretty bad, right? Of course it is, but I see light at the end of the tunnel here. It seems that these explicit effects occur most readily in situations where the people are trying to pretend race or gender isn’t effecting their decisions. Many of us just want to be fair so we try to ignore our potential bias with best intentions. However, hopefully if you’ve gotten nothing else out of this blog you will remember that you can’t ignore your biases. They ARE effecting your judgements even when you aren’t aware, so it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee and deal with them.

By better understanding the natural biases of our own minds we can not only learn to actively combat them in our daily lives rather than ignore them, but I hope we can also foster a less polarizing climate around these issues. If we can come to understand that we all have this issue we can be more forgiving and focus more on strategies and growth than villanizing the racists as though they are a they.

We are biased; and we can fight our biases.


Title adapted from:
Mallon, R., and Nichols, S. (2011). Dual Processes and Moral Rules. Emotion Review 3(3), 284-285.


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