How Fair Are We?

When someone holds a one-sided point of view, we accuse him or her of being prejudiced, or having a bias. Human beings on an individual basis are inclined to interpret situations in biased ways, often based on their cultural norms and beliefs. But there is another kind of bias, called cognitive bias, that all humans share. Cognitive bias is our tendency to make systematic decisions in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence. Human beings exhibit particular inherent errors in thinking when we process information. These errors are the result of genetic predisposition that has arisen over time as humans have evolved; in fact, you can see many of the same biases that humans display in rats, birds, and monkeys. Researchers who study decision making theorize that somewhere in our evolutionary past, many of these biases helped us to survive. For example, the negativity bias causes us to give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. In the dangerous environment in which our ancestors lived, avoiding negative outcomes likely meant life or death; being especially concerned with avoiding the bad made our ancestors more likely to survive. Other biases may be the result of our brains having limited processing power with which to analyze information, and therefore taking shortcuts—called heuristics—that sometimes lead us to irrational conclusions.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely puts it thusly: "We usually think of ourselves as sitting the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires—with how we want to view ourselves—than with reality." Bias affects everything we do: from deciding how to handle our money, to relating to other people, to even how we form memories of the past. Though many of these biases were beneficial in the past, these days they sometimes lead us to make big mistakes. Loss aversion, the cognitive bias that makes us strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains, causes many people to make awful economic decisions. Marketing executives use this to their advantage: you'll sign up for a free trial of a service and then be loathe to cancel it, avoiding a loss. Though we can't eradicate bias—it's far too deeply wired for that—we can try to be aware of it. As we learn more about these biases and where they come from, humans become better equipped to understand why we do the things we do.

Read more
  • Related

Confirmation Bias

Have you ever noticed how people seem to ignore the evidence in favor of anything they disagree with?

Negativity Bias

If you had eaten great meals at a local restaurant every week for ten years, and then, shockingly, last week...

Loss Aversion

Imagine two people in the same general financial situation. One loses $50; the second finds $50.

Halo Effect

The halo effect is a bias in which our overall impression of a person (a figurative halo) colors our judgment of that person’s character.

Affect Heuristic

Have you ever wondered why you feel inclined to go with your gut feelings when making a decision?

Illusion of Control

If you've ever seen somebody put on a lucky jersey so that their favorite team will win, you have watched the illusion of control in action.


All humans have beliefs, which are concepts we hold to be true, even without evidence. Beliefs can be quite helpful to us in many ways.
  • More

Economic Markets and Human Fairness

How Trading With Others … Joseph Henrich

Nate Silver and the Prediction Machine

Why FiveThirtyEight Is So
Fascinating (and Scary)
Lindsay Starke

WDYT?: Predictions Gone Wrong

Lindsay Starke

Many researchers have
stumbled upon the idea of …