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2.1 What Are Cognitive Biases, and How Can They Affect Research?

Your Road Map to Success: Section 2.1

Learning Outcome 2.1: Analyze four types of bias and their effects on research.

Why is this important?

Mastering this outcome will help you recognize some of the more common biases that can affect your research. Biased research can lead to information that is inaccurate and missing vital pieces of evidence. If we fail to consider all evidence available to us, our decisions and conclusions may be flawed.

How does this relate to your success in this course?

This section’s learning outcome will help you understand how certain biases can interfere with your research. This in turn will help you reduce such biases, leading to research that is informed, is balanced, and contributes to the scholarly conversation. Hector, for instance, chose the legal drinking age as his topic for a research essay in his criminal justice course. He has long believed that the legal minimum age for purchase and public possession of alcohol in the United States is unfair. He often argues that if an individual can enlist in the armed forces and vote at age 18, then that person should also be able to purchase alcohol. Moreover, he has traveled to several European countries where the legal drinking age ranges from 16 to 18, and he says, “They don’t seem to have a problem.” He proceeds to gather sources that support his stance while disregarding other sources and evidence that identify problems with lowering the drinking age. During a class discussion, several classmates point out this gap in his research. They raise questions and concerns that he can’t address because his research is one sided.

A cognitive bias is a way of perceiving information that prevents us from making rational and objective judgments and decisions. Cognitive biases can affect everything from the way a group behaves to how we remember past events and feelings. We are all subject to them, because as our minds try to process information quickly, we rely on mental shortcuts. Known as heuristics, these mental shortcuts do help us process information quickly and efficiently but can also lead to errors in judgment that can in turn result in irrational choices.

Research has shown that we all engage in cognitive bias from time to time. Social scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published several notable studies on cognitive biases beginning in the 1970s. Much of what we understand about these biases comes from their experiments, which helped identify and classify various errors in judgment and faulty logic. While there are many identified cognitive biases, some of which are up for debate, we will discuss four: the framing effect, confirmation bias, anchoring bias, and publication bias.

Framing Effect

The framing effect reveals how variations in wording and phrasing can affect how we consider a problem and make a decision. Changing a single word can influence how people respond to a problem or remember an event. In a classic example, memory researchers Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer (1974) had students watch a video of a car accident. Depending on the verb used to describe the accident, students over- and underestimated the

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speed and severity of the crash. When researchers used the verbs “bumped” and “contacted,” students estimated slower speeds. In contrast, when researchers used the verb “crashed” to describe the accident, students estimated the accident occurred at higher speeds and in some cases remembered seeing broken glass when there was none. You can see how the framing effect might change the way an eyewitness recalls the details of a crime.

Framing an issue in a negative light by focusing on possible risks can also affect decisions and judgments. For instance, you might not want to risk a bet if you have a 1 in 3 chance of losing. On the other hand, if you had a 66% chance of winning, you might be much more willing to take the bet, even though the odds are the same. The importance of how a problem is framed was explored by Kahneman and Tversky in 1981. Using a series of questions, they were able to determine various ways decision making is influenced by the way a problem is presented. In the reframing scenario presented in Table 2.1, for example, Kahneman and Tversky (1981) presented study participants with the same decision-making problem framed in two ways to determine whether the choices participants made would vary as a result.

Table 2.1: Reframing scenario

Framing A Framing B

Scenario Imagine that you have decided to see a play and paid the admission price of $10 per ticket. As you enter the theater, you discover that you have lost the ticket. Would you pay $10 for another ticket?

Imagine that you have decided to see a play where admission is $10 per ticket. As you enter the theater, you discover that you have lost a $10 bill. Would you still pay $10 for a ticket for the play?

Results Yes: 46% No: 54% Most participants were unwilling to pay an additional $10 to see the play.

Yes: 88% No: 12% Most participants were willing to pay an additional $10 to see the play.

Analysis Both scenarios involve the same cost, paying double the usual price to see the play, but most participants were only willing to do so when the $10 loss was disconnected from the ticket price. This example illustrates how our mental calculations can fail to assess situations objectively.

Issues can also be framed in a manner that oversimplifies complicated topics. One example is the Nixon administration’s framing of America’s drug problem as the “War on Drugs” in 1971. The use of the term “war” increased funding of law enforcement, courts, and prisons to “combat” criminal behavior and reduced funding of prevention and treatment programs. Framing the issue as a public health concern, on the other hand, would have led to a different focus and approach. For more on the long-term effects of the War on Drugs, visit https://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs (https://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs) .

In the same way, how you frame your research question can influence how you think about your topic as well as what information you seek out and accept. Let’s consider Sasha’s research project for her Issues in Education course. The mother of two boys ages 5 and 7, Sasha is concerned about the amount of time her sons spend on screens. They love video games and often sneak away with her smartphone to watch others playing video games on YouTube. Also, when her sons’ schools shifted to virtual classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt that their learning suffered. Perhaps not surprisingly, she develops the following research question: How can we prevent virtual school and technology from hurting children’s education?https://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs

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It is important to frame your research question in a way that doesn’t result in biased research. Though you most likely have opinions about certain topics, be aware of any cognitive biases while you conduct research.

Confirmation Bias in the News

Critical-Thinking Questions 1. How do you experience confirmation bias in your life,

either from other people or yourself? 2. What is the difference between data supporting a theory

and data being consistent with a theory?

In framing her research in this way, Sasha will seek information on the dangers of virtual education and technology. Her Internet search terms, for example, will reflect this focus, as will her results. Her instructor points out that her question is phrased in a way that will lead to one-sided research and encourages her to develop a question that approaches the topic from a neutral standpoint. She encourages Sasha to consider the importance of

remaining open-minded and curious and using research as a form of inquiry, as described in the ACRL framework. Sasha realizes that her research should look at the impacts of technology, including the benefits, drawbacks, and anything in between. She becomes excited to learn what technology has to offer students, because it’s certainly not going away. As you can see, reframing her research question will lead Sasha to less biased research.

Confirmation Bias

Most of us are familiar with the saying “You believe what you want to believe.” We all have the freedom to choose what to believe, of course, but when we hold on to a belief even when substantial evidence shows our belief is wrong, we can do harm. Confirmation bias can lead you to search for and overvalue information that supports a belief while ignoring and undervaluing information that contradicts the belief. The tendency toward confirmation bias can be greater when the belief is attached to a strong emotion or a desire to be right.

Raymond Nickerson (1998), a psychologist and author, reveals the difference between research that is unbiased and research that is swayed by confirmation bias. Free from the influence of confirmation bias, “one seeks evidence on all sides of a question, evaluates it as objectively as one can, and draws the conclusion that the evidence . . . seems to dictate” (Nickerson, 1998, p. 175). In contrast, under the influence of confirmation bias, “one selectively gathers, or gives undue weight to, evidence that supports one’s position while neglecting to gather, or discounting, evidence that would tell against it” (Nickerson, 1998, p. 175).

Whereas framing a research question in a biased manner can result in research that is only focused on a certain view of the topic, confirmation bias can lead researchers to question the validity of otherwise credible evidence or ignore it entirely. In the criminal justice field, for instance, confirmation bias can lead to the arrest and

Confirmation Bias in the News From Title:

TEDTalks: Alex Edmans—What To Trust In A “Post… (https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx? wID=100753&xtid=209596)

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Think about your first car-shopping experience. Did the price stickers on

conviction of innocent individuals. The National Registry of Exonerations, a project funded in 2012 by the University of California, Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law, lists 2,265 wrongful convictions that were eventually overturned between 1989 and 2018. Although it can’t be said that all wrongful convictions were the direct result of confirmation bias, this error in judgment has been shown to influence many criminal cases, affecting how investigators, prosecutors, judges, and jurors perceive evidence from the crime scene all the way to the courtroom (National Registry of Exonerations, 2018).

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011) points out that part of the problem is “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance” (p. 14). It can be comforting to come across information that confirms our beliefs. Likewise, it can cause some discomfort to learn that we might be wrong. However, it’s crucial for us to consider the broadest possible range of evidence and our knowledge gaps before rushing to a conclusion.

Let’s return to Hector’s research on lowering the legal drinking age. Despite other class members pointing out that his research is one sided, he’s sure that evidence will support his claim that lowering the age makes sense. While conducting background research, however, he comes across several articles from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that estimate the number of lives a minimum drinking age of 21 saves each year. The studies are based on data gathered from the 1970s, when several states lowered the drinking age, and the 1980s, when they raised it once more. Initially, Hector decides that this information is irrelevant. That was so long ago, he thinks to himself, and young people are different now. After learning about confirmation bias, however, he realizes he hasn’t given the evidence fair consideration. He must take a step back and focus less on being right and more on learning everything he can about the effects of lowering the legal drinking age.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias is a bias that results from placing greater emphasis on information we first encounter and thereafter considering new information in relation to that mental “anchor.” Researchers have noted the effects of this bias, particularly when it comes to numerical values. One well-known study by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) showed how assigning participants an arbitrary number would influence how well they answered an unrelated question. First, participants were assigned a random number from 1 to 100. They were then asked to estimate the percentage of African countries that belong to the United Nations. Depending on the number they were assigned, their estimates were higher or lower even though the assigned number had nothing to do with the percentage of African countries that belong to the United Nations. Instead of making a rational estimate, their minds seemed to cling to an arbitrary anchor unrelated to the topic in question (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).

This sort of bias is often at work when we make a purchase. Visit a used car lot, and you’ll likely see windshields advertising unbeatable sale prices in big and colorful numbers. That initial price acts as a mental anchor. Any price negotiated below that anchor will lead you to believe you’re getting a better deal (or at least that’s what the salesperson is hoping for). But the advertised sale price might be an overvaluation to compensate for a negotiated lower price. This sort of price anchoring can be seen in real estate, the stock market, and retail sales.

Mental anchors are not always numerical. Anchoring bias can also lead to diagnostic errors in medicine. This can happen when a health care provider relies too much on the first symptom

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windshields determine how you researched prices of similar cars at other lots? When situations like this occur, you may have experienced anchoring bias.

reported by a patient. That symptom can act as an anchor, such that all other symptoms reported afterward are only considered in relation to it. This first impression based on initial information can also lead to confirmation bias. The result can be that important information is ignored. Consider Dylan, who first

visited his primary care physician because of stomach pain. The stomach pain often led to dizziness and confusion. After these episodes, he usually felt exhausted. His physician decided it must be a stomach issue and prescribed antacids and dietary changes. The problem persisted. Only after a particularly strong episode resulted in a seizure did the physician suspect that Dylan might be suffering from a form of epilepsy. Because stomach pain acted as an anchor, other symptoms such as his dizziness and confusion were disregarded as unrelated or exaggerated.

When learning about a new topic, it’s important to avoid placing too much emphasis on the first piece of information you encounter. Instead, seek a variety of resources that address your research question from different perspectives, using different study designs or types of statistics. This broad research will prevent you from becoming anchored to a single—and potentially misleading—voice.

Publication Bias

Publication bias can happen when studies published and shared in a field or on a specific topic are very different from studies not selected for publication. When embarking on a new study, researchers begin by developing a hypothesis. The hypothesis, or educated guess, will predict the results of the study. A study with positive results is one that supports the hypothesis. However, many studies yield negative or inconclusive results. Publication bias is the tendency for journals and other publications to favor studies with positive and conclusive results. Researchers may also be less likely to submit negative studies for publication because they don’t expect their research to be published. Publication bias can also occur when a study is sponsored by an organization with a conflict of interest. For example, if a pharmaceutical company sponsors a study on the effectiveness of its new drug and the study shows negative or mixed results, the company may try to prevent publication of the study.

Publication bias does not invalidate published studies. However, publishing only positive results can increase the influence of those findings because unshared negative studies remain unknown in the field. The sharing of negative or inconclusive results is essential to present a complete picture of the state of knowledge in the field (Song et al., 2013).

Imagine that an herbal supplement is popularly believed to ease anxiety symptoms. One study involving a small group of participants shows significant improvement in feelings of anxiety with few side effects. Two other studies, however, show no change in the participants’ symptoms. A fourth study shows a small percentage of participants with worsening symptoms, fewer with improved symptoms, and the majority with no change. If only the study with positive outcomes is published, the information on the effectiveness of the supplement will be skewed, misleading consumers about how much they can expect this herb to help them. Again, this is not to say that the positive study is invalid; rather, it doesn’t reveal the full picture. For more on how publication bias can impact medical trials specifically, see this TEDx Talk by Sile Lane, scientist and activist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RXrGLolgEc (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RXrGLolgEc) .

Looking back at the ACRL threshold concept of scholarship as conversation, we can see how publication bias limits the conversation when only some researchers are taking part and others are left out. While publication bias may not be something you can reduce or control as a student researcher, it helps to be aware of how it can impact the information available to you when learning about a topic. You can also advocate for open access to all studieshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RXrGLolgEc

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regardless of the results. The following organizations are dedicated to promoting greater transparency in research and publication.

Center for Open Science (https://www.cos.io/ (https://www.cos.io/) ) All Trials (https://www.alltrials.net/ (https://www.alltrials.net/) )

Section 2.1 Knowledge Check Quiz

1. __________ is the tendency to value evidence that supports a belief while discrediting evidence that contradicts the same belief.

A. Preferential treatment B. Confirmation bias C. The framing effect

2. Placing too much emphasis on the first piece of information encountered is the result of __________.

A. anchoring bias B. primary source preference C. confirmation bias

3. A research question reads, “Why are vaccines harmful?” This question is likely to __________. A. prompt the researcher to consider the broadest possible range of evidence B. result in biased research C. advance the ACRL threshold concept of scholarship as conversation

4. Studies with negative or inconclusive results are published more often than studies with positive results.

A. True B. False

Answers 1 (B), 2 (A), 3 (B), 4 (B)https://www.cos.io/https://www.alltrials.net/

Week 3 – Discussion Forum 2

· Read  How Confirmation Bias Works  (Links to an external site.) .


· Read  Section 2.1  of the textbook.

· Watch Why You Think You’re Right – Even If You’re Wrong

· Describe a situation in which you or someone you know has demonstrated confirmation bias.

· Discuss two steps based on the assigned reading and video that could minimize the effect of bias in the situation you described.

· Explain why it is it important for scholars to be aware of confirmation bias during the research process. Include how this awareness is important to you as you seek information for your own research.

Your initial post should be a minimum of 150 words.

Review your classmates’ posts and respond to at least two of your peers. Each peer response should be a minimum of 50 words.

In your peer responses,

· Provide an alternative step to minimize bias that your peer could consider in relation to the situation shared.

· Address their thoughts about why it is important to be aware of confirmation bias during the research process.

Post 1


Describe a situation in which you or someone you know has demonstrated confirmation bias.

This situation may not be the most interesting. Still, I would say that a case that I have demonstrated confirmation bias would be arguing over which type of phone is better (Andriod or iPhone). I have always been a fan of Android phones, which stems from my experience of only owning an Android. When arguing this topic, it’s so easy to pick a side just because you haven’t ever experienced the other option!

Discuss two steps based on the assigned reading and video that could minimize the effect of bias in the situation you described.

The first step that I could use to minimize the effect of bias would be to utilize my new knowledge of the impact of bias and try to steer my decisions from being so. I need to try and remain open-minded and understand that I have never tried the other phone brand, so I do not know if I would like it or not. The second step I would utilize would be from the video about having a scout mindset. I think incorporating this mindset’s characteristics will help me have the best response instead of jumping to conclusions. Just like in the video, Julia Galef mentions that it is not about making one side win and another lose; it is about just looking at everything as honestly as possible, even if we do not like it (TED, 2016).  

Explain why it is important for scholars to be aware of confirmation bias during the research process. Include how this awareness is important to you as you seek information for your own research.

Scholars must be aware of confirmation bias during their research because it can cause them not to have factual and accurate research. This kind of research would affect all of their work and others who may interact with it. If I am researching and many of my articles are biased, it would cause my information to be invalid and opinionated. This is why the awareness of the scholars and myself is vital while researching. 

Post 2

Hello class,

Confirmation bias affects everyone of us in some way or another, and it happens nearly everyday. I chose to write about confirmation bias in regards to news sources and media outlets. We live in the most technologically advanced time in history, and almost every one of us consumes some form of media on a daily basis. After reading and watching the discussion materials, I realized that myself and most people I know tend to have a favorite source, or… a bias, as to where we obtain our news.

After having explored further into what a confirmation bias fully entails, and realizing how many things in day to day life they affect, I felt the first step in minimizing the impact of a confirmation bias was to simply acknowledge one is present. Acknowledging that a bias is present is important because it allows us to transition back into an objective mind set when evaluating or consuming media. Objectivity is very important for a person to master. Our favorite media outlets are our favorite for a reason, because they tend to align with ideas or concepts that we either agree with or, value in some regard. That does not necessarily mean that is wrong, but by identifying the potential for emotion and bias to influence us, we can move back into the grey area of objectivity to evaluate media. I feel that the second thing that is important to minimize the impact of a bias is to expand beyond our favorite resources. Taking in perspective from other or even opposing sources is a good way for people to find objectivity. Sources that challenge our held beliefs allow us to evaluate and criticize our perspective. It is not necessarily about changing our beliefs, but rather considering things we may not have previously.

In a scholarly setting it is important for researchers to remain objective because typically the purpose of research is to provide facts, and unbiased commentary or evaluations. After now realizing how confirmation biases can be difficult to detect, it is important for me to remain objective because I value integrity in my research. I like to try and remain as unbiased and objective as possible, as I value facts and stats above most things. It is also important for my research to be aware of how biases may be affecting other writers, or their data evaluations. Being able to identify biases from other writers will help to allow me to pick out the hard facts and data from biased sources.

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