Probing the ‘mystery’ of bias perceptions
by Emily Aronson
For those who consider their judgments fair and their thoughts rational, social psychologist Emily Pronin offers this piece of cautionary research: Most people think they’re objective, but they’re not.
Take, for example, physicians who are accused of skewing their patient-care decisions in order to support drug companies that give them free gifts, or judges who are accused of decisions that reflect personal friendships or political ideology. Though these individuals’ biases may seem obvious to outsiders, those involved tend to claim objectivity, Pronin noted.
While some might doubt the sincerity of these individuals’ claims of objectivity, Pronin’s studies offer a different explanation for the discrepancy. She has found that individuals often recognize bias in other people but not in themselves. As her work has concluded, this “bias blind spot” is significant because it both prevents people from being objective, and also leads them to experience conflict with others, whether domestic strife between spouses or diplomatic discord between world leaders.
“This idea that basic psychological processes can have important social consequences really interests me,” said Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs who came to the University in 2003.
Pronin’s work contributes to a longstanding interest among her Princeton psychology colleagues in questions of psychological bias and social perception. While some of the faculty explore these questions by focusing on stereotypes or racial prejudice, Pronin looks broadly at humans’ unconscious partialities and how they influence decisions.
“Emily’s work is at the center of our department’s studies about human perception and decision-making,” said John Darley, the Dorman T. Warren Professor of Psychology and professor of psychology and public affairs. “What she has done is articulated individuals’ failure to see themselves as biased and solved the mystery for why this happens.”
In many studies, Pronin and collaborators have found that people tend to assume bias in others’ actions but are slow to acknowledge how bias shapes their own views. Even when participants are told of this phenomenon, most will still claim to be less partisan than their peers.
What causes this dichotomy? According to Pronin’s research, it is due to a basic aspect of cognition: People have access to their own thoughts and feelings, but not the thoughts and feelings of others. As a result, people tend to look inward to thoughts and feelings when judging their own bias, even while looking outward to actions for judging the bias of others. Because biases generally operate unconsciously, looking inward blinds people to their own biases, Pronin said.
“We know the thoughts, feelings and intentions behind our actions, and that knowledge can lead us to believe we are acting impartially. But because we don’t have access to this information in other people’s heads, we tend to assume they are biased when their actions look biased,” Pronin explained.
In a May 2008 study co-written with psychology graduate student Kathleen Kennedy, Pronin found that people in disagreements have a tendency to think the other person is biased. The study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, measured the degree to which University students assumed bias in people expressing views on contentious issues. In one experiment, students read a mock interview with a college president about affirmative action, while in another they were presented with two fictitious students’ opinions about a proposed grading policy. Pronin and Kennedy observed that the more a student disagreed with a presented viewpoint, the more bias they imputed to the person expressing the opinion.
“You think your view is objectively justifiable, and you have factual reasons for why it is correct. But if someone disagrees with you, you think it’s because of their biases — their ideology or their emotions are preventing them from viewing things in a fair way,” Pronin said.
Further experimentation found that such biased perceptions often fuel arguments and conflict. This can have global consequences, Pronin said, citing as examples the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and fighting political factions in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
“Believing your adversaries are biased and that you are objective can lead groups to forgo negotiatory efforts in favor of more aggressive unilateral approaches,” Pronin said. “I find it fascinating that we could potentially trace ongoing world problems to something as simple and obvious as the fact that ‘I know my thoughts, but you do not.’”
Kennedy said working with Pronin has taught her how to “think like a scientist.”
“Emily has done really compelling work to help understand where the bias blind spot comes from and, together, we’ve explored the ways it can potentially impact everyday interactions without people realizing it,” said Kennedy, a fourth-year graduate student. “Among the many valuable lessons I’ve learned from her is perseverance — not to give up when things don’t quite go as expected — and this has helped me become a successful and productive researcher.”
Going forward, Pronin said she hopes to experiment with methods for overcoming the bias blind spot as a way to de-escalate disagreements.
Such work could help the master’s in public affairs students that Pronin co-teaches in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs course “Psychology for Policy Analysis and Implementation,” with Darley and other psychology faculty.
“The class translates what we know in psychology to what people need to know in order to be effective policymakers,” Pronin said. “Princeton is a real trailblazer in picking up on the importance of psychology for public leaders.”
The psychological underpinnings of how different people relate to one another are important factors in better understanding major societal issues, ranging from race relations to international diplomacy. This issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin profiles two faculty members in the Department of Psychology, Stacey Sinclair and Emily Pronin, whose research has advanced knowledge of how people react to and interact with others.
“They are both up-and-coming stars in social psychology, and their interests are overlapping,” said Deborah Prentice, chair of the psychology department. “Both have appointments in other units on campus — Stacey in the Center for African American Studies and Emily in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — so they illustrate psychology’s connections with the broader intellectual community.”
Pronin said her joint appointment with the Woodrow Wilson School allows her to contribute to psychology’s connection to the broader intellectual community at Princeton.
“I always want to make sure my work has one eye turned toward the real world,” Pronin said.
This aim is seen in Pronin’s other research, including her recent studies on how fast thinking influences mood and may contribute to mental disorders such as mania and depression. Scientific American and ABC News have highlighted Pronin’s finding that people could improve their moods by undertaking activities that promote rapid thinking, such as completing crossword puzzles or brainstorming ideas.
Pronin first examined perceptions of bias as a graduate student at Stanford University, where she earned her Ph.D. in psychology in 2001. She extended her research to other topics, including effects of thought speed and perceptions of free will, while a psychology postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University from 2001 to 2003.
Her interest in the intersection of psychology and the public good dates to Pronin’s undergraduate days at Yale University, where she earned a B.A. in psychology in 1996. Pronin worked in the laboratory of psychology professor Peter Salovey — now Yale’s provost — who was using psychological principles to develop cancer prevention media campaigns, finding effective ways to encourage people to wear sunscreen or get regular mammograms.
“It’s the type of research that I am still interested in today: It made a real impact on people’s lives, and it was grounded in scientific evidence,” Pronin said.