The Big Three Biases

(Almost) All you need to know about Bias

The causes for bias, and how it can flourish in the human brain, have been divided and characterized in well over a hundred ways. Some are called biases, some are called effects, and a few are simply stated as observations. Selected here are our candidates as the Big Three Biases. Between them they are likely involved in a majority of the bias problems.


1: Confirmation Bias: is the reflex to interpret, focus on, look for, and even remember data that "confirms" one's previous understandings. It is one of the most powerful of the many types of Bias (and not just a circular definition).  This reflex is primarily driven by one's egoistic biases (see The Bias Reflexes) assisted by, among other things, errors in knowledge and logic and the brain's natural aversion to dealing with conflicting beliefs. It flourishes by the failure to recognise, and then to try and prove, you may be wrong.


Confirmation Bias is easy to understand when not viewed as a thinking error. It is actually an effective stabilizer for our thinking. Inherently we seem to know if a new idea will show us we are wrong in even one of our beliefs. We then recognise we will have a lot of intellectual work to do to reconcile our other related opinions. And most of our ideas are related in some way. Adjusting our beliefs can be so overwhelming we generally fail to seriously try to prove we have some wrong-headed ideas. Confirmation Bias should be seen as a self-protection mechanism. As psychologist William James spotted well over a hundred years ago: "Most people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."


2: The Overconfidence Effect: reveals the degree of confidence one has in one’s opinion is no assurance one is right. This was confirmed in studies that asked a series of questions to participants who also provided an estimate of the chance their answer would be correct. It was found the more confident respondents were more frequently wrong than those who were less sure of their answers. So not only has one's confidence no relationship to reality it is actually a detriment! This stunning finding should be uppermost in everyone’s mind when forming opinions and judging the beliefs of other people. 


Young people (Generation Z and Millennials), as a group, seem to have great confidence in their opinions.  When asked why they are so sure they typically say “because everyone agrees and we base our opinions on the findings of science”. This absolute trust is dangerous, and it can actually be used as a flag for identifying Bias.  A more humble attitude could efficiently solve this particular bias. See: The Bias ProblemBias in Science and Bias Flags.


3: The Bandwagon Effect: is the reflex to readily accept the ideas of other people while overriding or ignoring one's own beliefs. The effect is driven by wanting to conform our ideas with those of others; and the emotions and desire to be seen as either cool; or a kind, humane, and pleasant person. It occurs more readily when it is believed the ideas are shared by many in one's social group. It is related to many other human biases including: virtue signaling, group-think, collective behaviors, and even Stockholm syndrome.


The Bandwagon Effect is a powerful concept in Bias Management as it accounts for how biases can be accepted within a culture. It can provide clues to why people can live lifestyles contrary to their stated beliefs. 


Summary: It is the combination of these three influences that makes them really interesting. While Confirmation Bias and the Over-Confidence Effect can be seen as being related, the Bandwagon Effect is a clear contradiction. How can we be charged with being overwhelmingly influenced by our prior beliefs if we can so readily accept the ideas of others. Clearly there is more going on with the biases in our heads than a simplistic idea about "fairness".  


Put together the above three biases account for our need to be thought of as holding intelligent yet popular opinions. Knowledge of these Big 3 helps finding guidelines to how bias can be reduced and how it should be managed. People vary considerably in their ability to withstand the Over-Confidence and Bandwagon effects. Neuroscience imaging techniques have identified brain activity distinctions between subjects but further work is needed. Confirmation Bias can only be controlled with a knowledge of what is actually true and what is not - a particularly difficult task. But overall Egoistic Bias reflexes (see The Bias Reflexes - discussed in the Next Topic) seem to be the dominant player in getting to grips with The Bias Puzzle and The Bias Problem.