What is Bias?

In psychology, ‘bias’ refers to predictable errors in perception. Here’s a simplified explanation of how bias works.

To start, everything we experience ‘beyond our skin’ is initially registered via our senses. After we sense something we begin to process it using our central nervous system, or brain (roughly speaking). This second process, resulting from the reception of the sensing process, is generally referred to as perception.

Once we perceive the input from our senses, a lot of “stuff” happens. Some of it is fully aware to us (i.e., conscious), some of it is not (i.e., unconscious). Whether conscious or unconscious, our brains actively interpret our (tasted, heard, seen, etc.) environment.

The interesting truth is: We don’t always interpret the “objective” world accurately. (We can know this because two people can perceive the same stimulus in different ways. If their is a ‘Truth”, both can’t be right; right?)

Some of the differences (errors) in our perception are formed by biases that are almost always unaware (unconscious) to us. (We have no idea how much our brains are processing).

Once we perceive something, it becomes exposed to and associated with a whole lot of other perceptions and processes previously accumulated to create our psychological interpretation. (Notice that I use the personal pronoun, “our,” in reference to interpretation. We each create our personal meaning of a given stimulus.)

Bias is a general term used to reflect the systematic (i.e., repeated) errors introduced via the active process of perception. Although all perception is personal – and, therefore, so too are all potential biases – some of these perception ‘errors’ occur predictably across many individuals. These are what psychology generally refers to as bias — a distinction from individual errors of perception.

So: biases are naturally occurring, generally unrecognized, systematic distortions from the “objective truth”, theoretically defined as an entity distinct from any sensation or perception.

One key thing to keep in mind about biases is that they have relevant, if self-generated, meaning or implications. They distort our thinking and behavior in a systematic way. This distinguishes them from simple errors in perception and illusions even though they share the fact of being distortions of ‘truth/reality’.

Biases are really important. Understanding how they work can dramatically improve our understanding, and therefore influence, of both ourselves, and others. If we force ourselves to recognize our biases, we can alter or even eliminate them. If we know that an individual is likely to be biased about or by a particular experience, we can use this understanding to better inform any particular agenda we may have with them. (This is a very important point and the crux of several posts in my blog.)

Many will find this overly simplistic to do justice to psychological bias. My intent is not to provide a scientific lecture. It’s simply to provide a ‘digestible’, reasonable description of what biases are.

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