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Tips for Spotting Bias and Manipulation

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| January 27, 2022

We all encounter people who are sharing inaccurate information or flawed thinking due to biases. Keep reading for tips on navigating bias from others.

Biases affect everyone we encounter to some degree. We are all susceptible to the same types of bias and errors in logic. “How to Recognize and Address Biases” focused on spotting and overcoming biases. This post deals with bias blind spots in others. Some people will fall victim to that blind spot and share inaccurate information or arguments that are deeply flawed. Knowing what kinds of biases bedevil people is the start to navigating these interactions.

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Different Types of Bias

People are vulnerable to a wide range of biases. Here is a recap of biases we covered before, plus a few new additions:

  • The Halo Effect – The tendency to see someone in a positive light because of an unrelated characteristic (they must be smart because they are attractive, for example).
  • The Horn Effect –The flip side of the halo effect, this is the tendency to view someone negatively because of a trait they possess.
  • Name Bias – Reacting to someone positively or negatively because of their name’s association with a certain racial or ethnic group.
  • Similarity Bias – Preferring people who are like you and giving undue weight to their views because you just click.
  • Confirmation Bias – We look for evidence that what we want to be true is true rather than evaluating the evidence based on logic alone.
  • Conformity Bias – This is the tendency to fall in line with our peers, with how they act or how they think, in order to fit in.
  • Gender Bias – This is a bias in favor of one gender, owing largely to stereotypes about gender roles or about traits that characterize certain genders. 
  • The Recency Effect – An item that comes last in a list or an argument heard last may have a disproportionate effect on our thinking about the subject at hand. 
  • Nonverbal Bias – Sometimes body language, facial expressions or posture have an undue influence on us. 
  • Bias Blind Spot – People are often better at seeing a bias in others than recognizing a bias in their own thinking.

We’ve all been exposed to people under the influence of at least one of these biases. While it can be difficult to identify in the moment, learning to spot certain types of bias in others can help you better navigate discourse.

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Encountering Biases

We encounter bias in two ways:

Bias unintentionally applied by others.

When people are not conscious of their biases, they often show up unintentionally. These scenarios range from small daily actions to actions with larger implications. For example, someone who dislikes a political figure, social group or type of government may find themselves sharing information that supports their established viewpoint. Confirmation bias gives us a false sense of accuracy and inhibits us from looking for further information. Someone may feel confident they understand a subject, when in fact they only understand a certain point of view. 

Bias intentionally applied by others.

This happens when someone has a general understanding of their own biases but still acts on them. For example, an employer hiring for a certain role might overlook an applicant because their name is difficult to pronounce. It’s not always this straightforward, though. That employer might glance through the application, looking for details supporting their decision to disqualify the applicant (using confirmation bias to support their name bias).

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Overcoming Unintentional Bias From Others

It is hard to say which cognitive bias is the most common, but you have probably interacted with someone who has displayed at least one type of bias. You can learn to identify when bias is at play if you look out for several things.

  1. Numbers that don’t add up – Use math to see if a claim is realistic or not. Check sources to see if the numbers support the other person’s claim. You may find they’ve simply shared a number that supports their argument or makes them feel better about their beliefs. 

  2. Anecdotes all supporting a certain point of view – A person or source citing a string of stories or video clips from only one perspective is not giving a complete and accurate view of the situation at hand. Whether they are doing so intentionally or unintentionally, it’s important to recognize when someone is consistently sharing information from only one place.

  3. Demonizing authorities with certain characteristics – Someone you talk to may dismiss an authority figure because of their race, religion, gender or political affiliation. Dismissing the source based on these characteristics is a sure sign of bias. Combat this by looking for source credentials and asking why someone thinks these characteristics would disqualify a source.

  4. Dismissing certain sources because of a misstep – Dismissing a source because of a recent mistake might be a sign of the recency effect. It doesn’t matter if the mistake was serious or trivial, corrected or not; the recent mistake is “proof” that X or Y source is not trustworthy to them.

  5. Sharing dubious sources – Some people accept sources that are not trustworthy at all. You see this especially with hot button issues and topics. Learn what sources and experts have high credibility in a field, and lean on those sources for information. Do a few quick logic checks on any source that seems at all questionable.

Again, many people share arguments based on these biases without meaning to. Either the person doesn’t realize they’ve been misled by their own biases or they don’t truly understand the topic. Remember to give grace and use these interactions as an opportunity to overcome unintentional bias.

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Overcoming Intentional Exploitation of Biases

Sometimes, you’ll encounter someone who intentionally uses our cognitive biases against us. Availability entrepreneurs are “individuals or groups that understand the dynamics of availability cascades, and use this knowledge in order to promote availability cascades with the goal of supporting a certain agenda.” They prey on confirmation bias and other cognitive biases by presenting examples of behaviors that are recent, emotionally loaded or a bit of both.

You can protect yourself from these people in a few different ways:

  • If they share a source, check out who operates it and apply some of those logic checks you read about above.  
  • Be alert for emotionally charged language. Strong emotions are easy to engage with and quick to distract listeners from true intent. 
  • Learn the jargon. If you don’t understand certain terms being used in an argument, it’s okay to hit pause and do your own research. Knowing what key jargon terms mean makes you less vulnerable to deliberate manipulation. 
  • Be open-minded, but be cautious. 

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Guarding Against Bias Is an Ongoing Challenge

If you spend any time learning about or discussing social, political or cultural issues, you are sure to encounter biases. These biases may be something unintentional (e.g., the person you are talking to doesn’t know they are experiencing the horn effect or confirmation bias, but they are). Some individuals and websites may intentionally exploit those biases to promote ideas that don’t stand up to logical scrutiny. As long as you practice attention and watch for a few red flags, you can minimize your risk of falling prey to biased arguments. For more resources on combating bias in daily life, subscribe to our blog.

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