Cognitive Bias
Sunday, July 16, 2017

What is it

Aristotle thought that rationality was the faculty that distinguished humans from other animals. However, psychological research shows that our judgments are plagued by systematic, irrational, unconscious errors known as ‘cognitive biases.’ In light of this research, can we really be confident in the superiority of human rationality? How much should we trust our own judgments when we are aware of our susceptibility to bias and error? And does our awareness of these biases obligate us to counter them? John and Ken shed their biases with Brian Nosek from the University of Virginia, co-Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Open Science.

Part of a six-part series on Intellectual Humility.

Listening Notes

Ken asks if knowing that one has a cognitive bias is enough to dispel such bias. He reminds us that there are 150 named cognitive biases that humans tend to have and that they can be dangerous: distorting race relations, hiring practices, one's own self-image, politics, and even science. Debra adds that, because cognitive biases are often hard to find, they are also difficult to correct. 

Ken and Debra welcome Brian Nosek, co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Open Science, to the show. Nosek offers that cognitive biases often arise in scientific research. For example, some scientists may hope to achieve results that are better suited for publication than achieve results that are mundane or ordinary. He goes on to argue that cognitive biases are part of our design: they are not defects of human evolution but have evolutionary value. According to him, cognitive biases are rooted in ordinary operations of the mind and are meant to make the world easier for us to function in. While, for instance, confirmation bias may lead to polarization in the political sphere, it also enables us to pick out the same healthy food over and over again.

Brian further explains that cognitive bias is not gendered. Debra cautions against using evolutionary arguments to explain difference in gender today. This, in turn, leads Brian to name a new bias—the "narrative bias." This brings them back to the idea that awareness of these biases may be necessary but is not sufficient to dispel them completely. Ken offers that perhaps one needs a degree of intellectual humility to help protect against such bias. Ultimately, Brian thinks that the biggest danger of cognitive bias is overconfidence and that perception is filled with cognitive bias.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:40): Holly McDede interviews Daniel Mochon, a Tulane University professor, about biases such as the Ikea Effect, Endowment Effect, Confirmation Bias, Implicit Ego Bias, and Rhyme-as-Reason Effect.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:39): Ian Shoales considers name-calling of former president Barack Obama and Democratic Presidential Elect Hilary Clinton and how this name-calling functioned as a kind of heuristic. 

Get Philosophy Talk


Sunday at 11am (pacific) on KALW 91.7 FM Local Public Radio, San Francisco


Individual downloads via CDBaby and iTunes. Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via iAamplify


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, July 28, 2017 -- 9:57 AM

Ok. We have cognitive biases.

Ok. We have cognitive biases. That makes us irrational and Aristotle was wrong? Hmmmm. Well, seems to me that if we did NOT have cognitive biases, we would still be irrational beings, based on the notion that cognitive bias is the outcome of a rational psyche and sentience? Let's take the matter one step further into absurdity: animals are irrational because they do not possess sentience and/or consciousness. What would it mean if we could somehow measure animal behavior(s) in such a way as to show, at least superficially, that they actually are rational when compared to our cognitively biased selves? Perhaps OUTCOME, as used above is too strong a word. I'm just thinking out loud. So, what if there were a way for us to erase our cognitive biases? Would we? Could we? All right, you can't compare animal behavior to human behavior. I get that. But where, when and why does cognitive bias emerge? Socialization and acculturation appear to be likely precursors. We TEACH cognitive bias, don't we? Well, if that were true, we certainly would not be very rational. And, on the basis of that argument, I guess we are not... (I was wearing my sociologist's cap for this one.)

Brian Nosek, Professor of Psychology University of Virginia; co-Founder and Executive Director, Center for Open Science

Researched By

Sarah Kahn

Upcoming Shows

22 July 2018

Does Science Over-reach?

We've all heard the phrase, "You can't argue with science." Appealing to scientific fact as a way to settle a question makes sense given the amazing...

29 July 2018

The 5th (Mostly) Annual Dionysus Awards

Josh and Ken talk to philosophers, film critics, and listeners in presenting their fifth (mostly) annual Dionysus Awards for the most philosophically...

05 August 2018

Your Lying Eyes - Perception, Memory,...

The criminal justice system often relies on the testimony of eyewitnesses to get convictions. Yet more and more, psychological science demonstrates...