Bias and Critical Thinking

Bias and Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking plays a significant role in assimilation of thoughts and ideas. It involves bringing subjectivity into the thought process, making reasoned judgements, and arriving at well thought through decisions. This concept was explored in the previous issue. One of the most significant aspects of Critical Thinking is to realise one’s prejudices and go beyond the prejudices when making decisions, though it is easier said than done.

As it is often said – “To solve a problem, the first step is to realise the existence of the problem and identify it.” To be able to overcome prejudice and bias effectively, one must identify situations where bias is likely to creep in, and different kinds of bias that one is exposed to. Once these biases are identified, then we can worry about how to go beyond them when deciding.

Cognitive biases

All biases that have a significant influence on Critical Thinking fall under the umbrella of Cognitive Biases.

What is cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is the over-reliance on one’s personal beliefs and opinions that has a bearing on one’s thought process and cognition, often resulting in errors in reasoning and decisions following thereof.

More than a dozen of biases fall under this category of a cognitive bias. Each of them has a unique origin (or) reason. But all of them eventually have a common end-result, namely, they cloud the thought process. Let us take a peep into three common biases impacting us significantly. The ones that we will consider here are:

  • Self-serving Bias
  • Confirmation Bias
  • Group Bias

In this article, we would understand the above biases and their implications.

Self-Serving Bias

In this form of bias, success, or any positive outcome is attributed to one’s competence, skills as negative outcomes are attributed to luck. A strong underlying belief that luck is required and that it plays an indispensable role in the outcome is the result of this bias.

Due to the negative belief, luck could play an important role; it has a serious limiting effect on the effort that we put in, on any task. We persistently believe that no matter what we do, always luck is the last word.

This is a bias that cannot be overcome by any single practice at one point in time. Only through regular cognisance and right evaluations we can overcome this bias. Once a task is completed, it helps to analyse the task and determine the root-cause of the outcome.

Performing such root-cause analysis on both the positive and negative outcomes can create the linkage between our line of reasoning and the result. It is important to identify and acknowledge our faulty reasoning and its impact on the outcome when performing this analysis. Over a period, through constant learning, our belief on the influence of luck in results will get reduced.

A closely related bias is where one is over-confident of his or her skills and competence, and consequently, data and information related to these skills are considered to be more important.

Confirmatory Bias

Confirmatory bias is the one, which the person filters out the evidence and takes in only those that confirm his or her views. Very often most of us fall into this bias unconsciously. We tend to form a view at the earliest opportunity; subsequently, only some pieces of evidence, which aligns to our view, would we consider, even though other evidences may be contrary to our view. We will listen to those who favour our opinion and ignore others.

This bias could be overcome by consciously looking for any pieces of evidence that contradicts our view. At first, it might be difficult, but by practice, this skill can be sharpened.

Group bias

Also called the herd mentality, group bias arises being influenced by the majority of those in our group. This is a form of peer-bias, where our peers hold a significant influence over our decisions. The social conditions would influence our decision.

For example, choice of career is often influenced by one’s peers; the most common stereotype is Lawyer, Engineer or Doctor. Will such careers suit the individual's personality and passion; no such question would be asked.

A slight variant of this is the model bias, where we happen to be influenced by our role model, or someone who we idolize. We tend to carry this influence even in those facets of our life for which the role model is not well-known for. For example, Sachin Tendulkar is my favourite cricketer. And, if he is known to prefer a particular colour dress, I will bring myself to like the same colour.

Here again, we must consciously get down to the basics – what is our agenda, and our context? Are we irrationally influenced by the group that we belong to? Factually looking at the options and getting unbiased inputs on the various options can help us to keep away from falling for this bias. Again, like the other biases, this too, comes with conscious practice, over time.

Overcoming the bias

Each bias may require a different approach to overcome it. It is important to identify the bias and, it is also important to know whether it is possible for the bias to show up in our reasoning and decision-making skills.

Let us look at a couple of practices that can help immensely.

One practice is to document the reasoning process. This documentation should be captured as a fishbone diagram (also called a Mind Map). Capturing this information as a mind map makes it possible to get a pictorial view with different thoughts that have influenced the outcome.

Another practice is to represent one’s sequence of thoughts to a small group of people, who act as mentors and follow up your presentation with a discussion. At the start of the presentation, set the context for the meeting, and request that potential biases in one’s reasoning to be pointed out. Review has to be viewed crucially; it is important that the mentors be chosen appropriately to be certain that they can view your case objectively.

In Conclusion

It is important to know the different kinds of biases and identify those that make us particularly vulnerable to mistakes. Having identified them, consciously taking steps to resolve them in over time, can improve our decision-making skills and make our decisions less influenced by these biases. Taking the help from mentors to identify these biases and documenting the thought process with the help of a mind-map are some practices that help us to gain valuable insights and help us to represent the progress in the right direction.

About the Author

Dr. Anand Lakshmanan is a Senior-Member of IEEE, a Technologist and an Organization builder. He is currently pursuing advisory and consulting roles for EdTech companies, and member of curriculum committee and Senate in Institutes of National repute.

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