Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

van-gogh-wheat

Researchers looked at how viewers of artwork were influenced when they knew it had been done by someone whose name they recognized as famous. (Photo: Public Domain)

What, Me Biased?

• February 26, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Researchers looked at how viewers of artwork were influenced when they knew it had been done by someone whose name they recognized as famous. (Photo: Public Domain)

New research finds we retain our unwarranted faith in our capacity to be objective, even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary.

Pretty much all of us are prone to “bias blindness.” We can easily spot prejudice in others, but we’re oblivious to our own, insisting on our impartiality in spite of any and all evidence to the contrary.

Newly published research suggests this problem is actually worse than we thought. It finds that even when people use an evaluation strategy they concede is biased, they continue to insist their judgments are objective.

“Recognizing one’s bias is a critical first step in trying to correct for it,” writes a research team led by Emily Pronin and Katherine Hansen of Princeton University. “These experiments make clear how difficult that first step can be to reach.”

“Even when people acknowledge that what they are about to do is biased, they still are inclined to see their resulting decisions as objective.”

Although their findings have clear implications regarding political opinions, the researchers avoided such fraught topics and focused on art. In two experiments, participants (74 Princeton undergraduates in the first, 85 adults recruited online in the second) looked at a series of 80 paintings and rated the artistic merit of each on a one-to-nine scale.

Half of the participants were instructed to note the name of the artist (which was flashed onto the screen when they pushed a specific button) before making their evaluation. The others evaluated the works without knowing who painted them.

When that button was pushed, half of the paintings were identified as the product of a famous artist (usually the one who actually created the work). The others were identified as a work by an unknown artist; researchers “consulted a phone book to obtain names to assign to those paintings.”

The students who saw these names conceded that the format lent itself to bias. But they “did not view their own evaluations as any less objective than did participants in the explicitly objective condition,” the researchers note.

Not surprisingly, their evaluations were, in fact, biased by the information: They rated the merit of painters attributed to great artists higher than those works purportedly created by unknowns. On the other hand, those who did not see the alleged names of the artists “rated the artistic merit of the two groups of paintings the same,” the researchers write.

For the online experiment, the researchers added some extra precautions, explicitly pointing out that looking at the artists’ names could create bias, “in that paintings by famous painters could be rated more highly, regardless of their actual quality.”

Nevertheless, the results were identical to the first experiment. Indeed, in spite of the warning, those who saw the painters’ names “became yet more convinced of their objectivity.”

The results add to the evidence that “people have difficulty recognizing their own biases,” the researchers conclude. “It shows that even when people acknowledge that what they are about to do is biased, they still are inclined to see their resulting decisions as objective.”

This false sense of fairness and impartiality can lead all to sorts of problems. To cite just one, the researchers note that a juror who is certain he or she won’t take into account testimony ruled inadmissible may, in fact, be swayed by it.

So what’s the answer here? Pronin and her colleagues argue that the best strategy is presenting information in such a way that prevents bias. They point to the tradition of orchestras having potential members audition from behind a screen, so that they are judged solely on their talent, as opposed to their race, gender, age, or any other extraneous factors.

The researchers note that such strategies are effective, but we’re reluctant to use them because we have such strong confidence in our own objectivity. Their work provides new evidence that such faith is, sadly, unwarranted.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”


October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.


October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.