Alan Dershowitz and the Bias Blind Spot

What it means to make mistakes.
May 14 2010 4:46 PM

Alan Dershowitz and the Bias Blind Spot

In one of the more fascinating moments of my interview with Alan Dershowitz , he claims that his own beliefs about the Israel-Palestine conflict are grounded in the evidence while his adversaries' beliefs arise from (and attest to) their underlying psychological issues. Distilled down to its essence, the claim is: I'm reasonable, my opponents are crazy.

In making this claim, Dershowitz provides a textbook example of a phenomenon called the bias blind spot: the tendency to spot (or allege) bias in others while denying it in ourselves. In a sense, the bias blind spot is just an epiphenomenon of the Lake Wobegon Effect , that endlessly entertaining statistical debacle whereby we all think of ourselves as above average in every respect including impartiality. 

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Virtually everyone who has ever studied the bias blind spot agrees that it is a consequence of another psychological phenomenon: naive realism, or the tendency to assume that the world is exactly as we perceive it. Nobody seriously subscribes to naive realism, mind you (at least, no sane adults, and certainly no high-powered legal minds). But that doesn't stop us from defaulting to the sense that our own beliefs perfectly reflect reality. From that often-unconscious assumption follows another: People who disagree with us must have a distorted view of the world. As the Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues put it in a paper entitled "Objectivity in the Eye of the Beholder: Divergent Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Other":

"We cannot attribute [our adversaries'] responses to the nature of the events or issues that elicited them because we deem our own different responses to be the ones dictated by the objective nature of those events or issues. Instead .... we infer that the source of their responses must be something about them ." 

In other words, we have to think that our own beliefs reflect the facts —t hat's what it means to believe them, after all. As a result, when people disagree with us, we go looking for the source of that disagreement not in the substance of the issues, but in the depths of their psyches.

But what about our own psyches? When I asked Dershowitz why he wasn't just as susceptible to psychological biases as his adversaries, he replied that, "I've thought hard about my psychological connections and I think I've managed to separate out the psychological from the legal, moral, and political."

Here, too, he provides an eerily perfect example of a widespread psychological phenomenon: the tendency to verify our own freedom from bias by ... well, by searching our souls. The trouble is that soul-searching is a sure-fire way not to turn up any evidence of bias, not least because most biasing processes leave no traces in the conscious mind. At most, we might acknowledge the existence of factors that could have prejudiced us, while determining that, in the end, they did not. (After all, if we were convinced that a belief of ours reflected a personal bias rather than objective reality, we would presumably change our mind.)  

Unsurprisingly, this introspective method of assessing bias is singularly unconvincing to anyone but ourselves. As Pronin and her colleagues put it, "We are not particularly comforted when others assure us that they have looked into their own hearts and minds and concluded that they have been fair and objective." 

The bias blind spot is a shockingly robust effect. Researchers have found that even when you explicitly explain the bias to subjects before eliciting it from them, they still claim that they are less susceptible to it than others. If Alan Dershowitz reads this, I suspect he will feel the same way. 

So is there any way to counteract this bias? Only by remaining constantly alive to the very real possibility that we are in its grips, even if we cannot sense it. Alternatively, you could try consulting a few people with whom you disagree. They, no doubt, can spot your biases with perfect clarity.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com. You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

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