Biases to Avoid
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Why do we often so quickly judge people as likable or unlikable – as amazing or horrible?
Underneath the surface of our everyday lives, we experience countless subconscious biases (prejudices, distortions) in our judgment of other people. We oftentimes falsely attribute (explanation below) one action or trait to the person’s overall character. If we are unaware of these biases, we run the risk of holding completely inaccurate perceptions of people, groups, and situations. But if we are simply more aware of our biases, we can build our empathy and avoid being fooled by our own ignorant assumptions.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
Imagine that one day you show up at a work meeting with some people from different departments who you don’t know very well. Everybody greets you very politely with nice words and warm smiles – except for Paul. Paul greets you very simply but doesn’t really smile or seem very friendly. Since you don’t really know Paul, you think to yourself, “Doesn’t he like me? Why is he a jerk? What’s wrong with him?” So you all of a sudden put him in a certain category of “rude and unfriendly.” He was, after all, the only person in the room who didn’t smile at you.
Then, to make things worse, during the meeting, Paul is constantly checking his phone and doesn’t seem to be showing respect to the group. Eventually, his phone buzzes and he quickly leaves the room without a word. At this point, you really find Paul to be disrespectful and rude. So you look at your coworkers with a baffled (confused) expression on your face. Others also seem to be looking at each other in confusion.
After a tense moment of silence, Susan from human resources speaks up in a serious voice.
“Paul’s son was in a car accident this morning in the UK. He has very little information about it and was just waiting to hear back from the hospital. There wasn’t anything Paul could do except wait. But honestly, he doesn’t know if his son is alive or not.”
In that moment, you realize you had completely misjudged Paul’s character. He was not rude – he was a concerned father experiencing deep pain and helpless uncertainty. His behavior was simply a response to a very serious situation that was much more important than surface-level smiles, niceties (polite behavior), and another day of meetings.
So what happened in that situation?
You fell victim to (were negatively impacted by) the fundamental attribution error. This is a cognitive bias where you judge someone’s character by their behavior without considering the bigger context or outside forces that are causing their behavior.
Some researchers have observed that the fundamental attribution error could potentially be more common among low-context cultures that are more individualistic. Whereas, high-context collectivist (group-focused) cultures might naturally be more aware of the wider context of a situation and less prone (likely) to associate someone’s behavior with their individual character alone. In any case, it’s useful to keep this concept in mind in order to give people the benefit of the doubt (explanation below) and not falsely assume things about people when we don’t have all the background information.
The Halo Effect
Let’s take a look at a similar attribution bias called the Halo Effect, which is also known as the Halo Error.
This happens when we observe just one single positive thing about a person but then assume that everything else about the person is also positive.
A halo is the golden circle around someone’s head that symbolizes that they are perfect and holy.
This error can also be applied to how people perceive groups or companies, which means that advertising and marketing campaigns can capitalize on the company’s strengths in order to make consumers feel positive about their overall image. First impressions are powerful and if we aren’t aware of the bigger picture, we might be misled.
Can you recall a time when you bought something you didn’t need or maybe even didn’t want? Perhaps a salesperson at a store sold you some clothes even though you were just window shopping.
Imagine a situation where an attractive sales person approaches you and starts a conversation with you. Maybe they strike you (appear) as extremely good-looking. Maybe they have amazing fashion that make you trust their sense of style. Or maybe the way they speak just makes you feel relaxed and trusting of them. It could be just one of these things, or a combination. The reality is that they give you an impression that makes you open your heart and open your wallet (buy something).
As we can see, there can be many different individual aspects of a person that can lure (persuade, attract, trick) us into trusting and liking them. We can see this play out (develop, happen) everywhere. There have been many studies that show us evidence:
There were teachers who subconsciously gave attractive students better grades than less attractive students.
Pedestrians (people walking along a road) followed a well-dressed jaywalker (person who illegally crosses the street) across a crosswalk when the pedestrian light was red because the person appeared confident, intelligent, and trustworthy.
Job interviewees who were tall, good looking, and dressed in a perfect suit were more likely to get the job even if they were less talented or intelligent than their competitors.
There has even been some evidence that judges in court give more lenient (merciful, compassionate) sentences (punishments) to criminals who are better looking. At the same time, some researchers have shown that good-looking criminals have also received more severe sentences when their crime involved using their attractiveness to con (trick, scam, cheat) someone. So this is a reminder that the bias can have some nuances.
If this cognitive error can even get the best of (defeat, overpower) legal experts, then we should all be paying attention to how it might be influencing our everyday behavior.
Of course, the opposite of the Halo Effect is when we judge someone negatively based only on one negative trait. This is called the Horn Effect (like horns of the devil), which is similar in some ways to the Fundamental Attribution Error.
What Can We Learn?
So there we have it. The Fundamental Attribution Error judges a person without understanding the background context and the Halo Effect judges a person’s overall character based on only one positive trait.
The lesson for us here is to make sure we aren’t fooled by first impressions, isolated incidents, or limited information.
How can we overcome these biases?
Don’t judge too quickly. Don’t assume you have all the pertinent (relevant, appropriate) information. Ask logical questions so you don’t rely only on your emotions and assumptions. And whenever you like or dislike someone, just ask yourself two questions:
Why do I feel or think in this way?
How might I be wrong?
In the end, hopefully we can all grow to understand our own biases better and also learn to view others more realistically and with more empathy.
Attribution – The action of regarding something as being caused by a person or thing. If I attribute your success to your hard work, I mean that your hard work caused your success. If I attribute a single negative action you make to your entire character, I mean that your overall character is responsible for your single action… “Be careful not to make inaccurate attributions.”
Give someone the benefit of the doubt – To choose to trust that someone has good intentions even though you are uncertain or doubtful about it… “My son said he didn’t take any of my money, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
Rice, K (2016, April 20). Attribution Biases. Integrated SocioPsychology. https://www.integratedsociopsychology.net/theory/meta-states-and-the-cognitive-triad/attribution-biases/
Prera, A (2021, March 22). Why the halo effect affects how we perceive others. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/halo-effect.html
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