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 (3)

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.)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, November 24, 2019 -- 11:04 AM

See also: my remarks on

See also: my remarks on Comedy and the Culture Wars...(scheduled for December 8, 2019) I still believe cognitive bias is largely a learned behavior. And, perhaps moreover, irrationality is a defense mechanism? Mindfulness, then, only attains within those who attain mind it all connected with Searle's notion about direction-of-fit?

RepoMan05's picture


Monday, December 2, 2019 -- 4:40 PM

Its so politically incorrect

Its so politically incorrect to suggest diferences between the sexual dimorphism. Its just like if someone made the existence of time into a political issue. On one hand, you can obviously eat a plate of french fries without suffering from the exotoxins of mold spores but then you also cant explaine the incorporeality that lets you do it.

Obviously there's a difference between the sexes you can discuss but you have to entertain legitimacy for the fallacy of statistics and averages to do it. A very unpopular fallacy to entertain when it doesnt suit you.

At some point, you just have to admit that the problems seen in a half billion years of evolution might not have been "problems" and liberation from those problems without balancing those problems with adequate solutions, has lead the world to the brink of very probably real global annihilation.

A big forcible backslide might be a very good idea if discussions of contextual solutions are going to be denied by partisan politics.


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

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