Cognitive Bias

Sunday, December 15, 2019
First Aired: 
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? Debra 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. 

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

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

Bonus Content


Research By

Sarah Kahn

Upcoming Shows

27 October 2019

The Limits of Medical Consent

In our healthcare system, parents normally make medical decisions for their kids because, we think, children are not competent to make such decisions...

03 November 2019

Hobbes and the Ideal Citizen

Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that without government to control our worst impulses, life would be 'solitary, poor, nasty,...

10 November 2019

Should Beliefs Aim at Truth?

If beliefs can be described as having a goal or purpose, then surely that is something like aiming at the truth. Yet we all hold many false beliefs...