You’re Wrong & Don’t Know It: Social Biases

Chris Russo

Chris Russo

Content Marketing Manager

February 16, 2023

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

Selling more than 250 million records worldwide, Queen is undoubtedly one of the biggest rock and roll bands in history. And like many other rock bands at the time, Queen was just as infamous as they were famous, with no better example of this than the launch party for their 1978 album “Jazz” at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans. 

Without getting into details (feel free to google the above and read for yourself), it is easy to assume that the members of the band responsible for throwing one of the most infamous parties in history were all actively engaged in the proverbial “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle. And if you did, you’d be wrong. 

Brian May, lead guitarist and founding band member, has never taken recreational drugs. And he was never interested in a succession of sexual partners. Instead, he was interested in science, specifically outer space. And in 2007, he received his PhD in astrophysics. 

Does that sound like the kind of person who would be in one of the biggest rock and roll bands ever, least of all responsible for throwing one of the most infamous parties in history?

Admittedly, no, but that’s the problem and proof of just how pervasive social biases can be. 

Social cognitive biases are flawed patterns of thinking and are fueled by unfair and incorrect assumptions. Unfortunately, the vast majority are not as harmless as the one described above; rather, they are responsible for many of the inequitable and discriminatory instances in our society today. 

And to make matters worse, they come in many different forms. 

Social Biases

Halo Effect

This well-documented cognitive bias refers to instances where a positive impression of a person, brand or product in one area leads to another positive impression in an unrelated field. This particular bias is unique as it has both positive and negative directions: if you like one aspect of something, you’re predisposed toward liking other things about it, and inversely if you dislike something, you’re negatively predisposed towards everything else. 

Fundamental Attribution Error

 Sometimes referred to as attribution effect or correspondence bias, this is the propensity for people to minimize the environmental and situational explanations for a person’s behaviour while maximizing the psychological, dispositional or personality-based explanations. In other words, does a person do bad things because they are simply a bad person, or do we accept the reality of outside influence on our actions? 

Arrows pointing between prejudice and ingroup favoritism, stereotyping and discrimination


Given its name, admittedly I wish it had something to do with customized stereo equipment, but unfortunately, the reality around Stereotyping is far less appealing. It refers to the unjustified belief that all people, places or things with a particular characteristic are the same. For example, the belief that girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks, Canadians are overwhelmingly polite or any instance where you may have heard someone say, “well, they’re all the same” when referring to a group of people in a less than favourable light. 


Closely related to the above, prejudice is when an existing stereotype causes unwarranted emotion or opinion towards a person or group, place or thing. Ageism, classism, racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia and xenophobia are some examples of prejudices, and while all prejudice is wrong, not all prejudice is acted upon consciously. After all, a person doesn’t have to realize they are being prejudiced to actually prejudge people. 


Prejudice in action, discrimination is when stereotypes fuel our decisions and behaviour. While prejudice like ageism, classism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia are types of biased thinking, it becomes discriminatory when that thinking becomes the basis for action. Much like prejudice, not all discrimination is necessarily conscious, although that doesn’t make it any less wrong. What it does do is put a greater onus on us to be proactive in our efforts to ensure equity and equality in the products we build and the services we provide. 

Pygmalion Effect

While there’s no shortage to choose from, among Henry Ford’s most notable quotes is “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” It refers to the idea that having belief, confidence, and commitment to one’s goals and outcomes can help one realize them (just as easily as the inverse can ensure they don’t come to fruition). However, this effect and influence on outcomes isn’t only internal.  The Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect is a psychological phenomenon where the high expectations placed on an individual can lead to improved results, and inversely, where low expectations can lead to worse outcomes. 

Self-serving Bias

Nobody would argue that it’s easier to be a winner than a loser, a hero rather than a villain. But while it might be easier, could such preference be obscuring the truth? Self-serving bias, much like its name suggests, is the tendency for people to take more credit for successes than they do for failures. This isn’t limited to self-evaluation but also how we evaluate new information, often favouring that which reinforces or serves our own beliefs and interests. If you’ve ever gotten an A on your homework and congratulated yourself for studying hard but then got a D and ascribed the blame to the teacher’s personal vendetta against you, then you’re not only familiar with this type of balance – you’ve lived it!

Projection Bias

 If you’re anything like me then you’ve likely gone to the grocery store on an empty stomach before and come home with more food than you (or anyone in your home) could possibly eat. And if you have, then you’re already familiar with projection bias, the self-forecasting fallacy where we inflate the degree our future selves will share our current views, values and behaviours, leading us to make ill-advised choices. But this bias isn’t only inwardly facing. Projection bias also applies to instances where we think other people share the same views and values or would exhibit the same behaviours as us in any given situation. Admittedly, I’m guilty of this one every time I drag my family into a used bookstore. 

Motivated Reasoning

Motivated Reasoning

 In its simplest terms, motivated reasoning describes a tendency to accept what we want to believe more easily and with less inquiry than something we don’t want to believe. This results in decisions that are guided by desire rather than evidence. Let’s take dinner for example. Faced with two options, cooking a meal at home or ordering takeout, likely your preference is towards takeout. But, you know logically you should cook. Using motivated reasoning and your desire for takeout as a filter of information, you may only look at recipes that take too long to prepare, you are missing ingredients for, or would make a big mess to clean up afterwards. Based on that information, you can justify ordering food as a better alternative.  

While the above is by no means a comprehensive list, it should give you a better idea as to what social cognitive biases are, what they look like, and how they can manifest themselves in our lives. And although many of these biases can occur unconsciously that doesn’t mean you aren’t without recourse. 

Mitigation & Avoidance Strategies

The core problem with social cognitive biases is the assumptions people use to fill in the information gaps they have. But through careful examination of those assumptions and by actively exploring alternate hypotheses it’s possible to mitigate, if not avoid completely, their impact. 

Here are a few methods that can be used.

Competing Hypotheses

As the name suggests, this method involves analyzing and evaluating observed data for several competing hypotheses.

  • List as many alternative hypotheses as possible
  • List all meaningful evidence relevant to the hypotheses
  • Develop a matrix with each hypothesis on top and the associated evidence to its side
  • Instead of trying to prove a hypothesis, try and disprove one
  • Consider the question, “what evidence would make this hypothesis true?”
  • Determine the likelihood of each hypothesis, record conclusions and proceed accordingly

Differential Diagnosis

In medicine, a differential diagnosis refers to looking at all the possible disorders that could be responsible for the symptoms. And when social cognitive biases, the approach really isn’t that much different. 

  • Identify and list all known challenges
  • Review and evaluate, looking for a common origin
  • Identify and list possible causes for the given challenges
  • Order and prioritize list according to the severeness
  • Review and begin eliminating the causes, beginning with the most severe

Devil’s Advocacy

Although consensus in groups can be strong, it’s important to challenge and actively pursue alternative possibilities while contesting existing assumptions to determine strength and validity. 

  • Identify and list critical assumptions supporting a main line of thinking and evaluate supporting evidence
  • Select assumptions that seem most open to challenge
  • Review evidence and its validity and identify any major gaps that may exist
  • Identify any evidence that backs up an alternative hypothesis or challenges the current prevalent thinking

Final Thoughts

Whether thinking too highly, too lowly or just plain incorrectly, social cognitive biases are inaccurate patterns of thinking that affect our ability to rationally assess ourselves and others. And this inaccuracy can have a material impact on our lives and the lives of others, whether you’re talking about product, process or people. 

Assumptions are not inherently wrong. In fact, there are many instances in which assumptions are all we have to guide us. However, when the pursuit of what is true is abandoned and assumptions are blindly followed, then we begin to diverge from reality and the people in it. It is only when understanding ourselves as well as others by actively questioning what we see, think, feel and believe that we’ll be able to begin creating and building on common ground for mutual benefit. 

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