The Double Standard

It’s easy to spot bias in other people, especially those with whom we disagree.  But it’s not so easy to recognize our own biases.  Psychologist Emily Pronin says it’s partly because of our brain architecture. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore what Pronin calls the introspection illusion.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When you look at the partisan divisions in the United States and other countries, you see something curious.

Speaker 2: There's a bias, a double standard. It's always there. It pervades our society.

Shankar Vedantam: It's not just that each side accuses the other of bias.

Speaker 3: Right-wing media isn't doing journalism, it's doing fan fiction.

Speaker 2: The left can insult people, the left can make outrageous statements, nothing happens. Oh, it's different on the right.

Shankar Vedantam: They accuse one another of the same kinds of bias.

Speaker 2: All the staff members at the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, they're like cornered, rabid rats, they've been selling us lies for so many years.

Speaker 4: The Americans who listen to Fox News and conservative talk radio are being lied to and manipulated every day.

Shankar Vedantam: Each side says the other is blind to facts, blind to reason.

Speaker 5: Look, we're taking on a Republican party that has rejected science, where the vast majority of Republican congressmen and senators do not even accept the reality of climate change, let alone the new...

Speaker 6: This is a metaphor really for the left's entire program, which is built entirely on denying reality, they deny the reality of illegal immigration, they deny the reality of terrorism, they deny the reality of biological gender.

Shankar Vedantam: You see the same thing in many other conflicts around the world. Each side accuses the other of inflexibility and ideological blindness. Now, there are certainly situations where one side is right and the other is wrong. One side is biased, and the other is not, or at least less so. Our focus today, though, is not on specific controversies rather, we want to explore the psychological mechanisms that prompt us to judge our own behavior very differently than the behavior of other people. This week on Hidden Brain, the double standard inside our heads.

Shankar Vedantam: On a daily basis, all of us evaluate others. We think about the claims of people who want to sell us something, we gauge the ideas of colleagues, we assess friends and family. We also regularly look into our own hearts and minds. We evaluate ourselves. At Princeton University, psychologist Emily Pronin has studied why our minds come to very different conclusions about ourselves and others. Emily Pronin, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Emily Pronin: Thank you, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: So, a few years ago, Emily, you conducted an experiment where you brought volunteers into a lab and you told them about a range of different biases, biases like the halo effect, where you see someone who's very beautiful, and you assume this person must also be very intelligent. Or a bias like confirmation bias, where we go looking for information that supports our pre-existing views. And you did something very interesting. You asked the volunteers whether they thought that they would fall prey to these biases. What did they tell you?

Emily Pronin: We had students in a class, so that they kind of all knew each other from being in the class together. And what we did is we described each bias just in a few sentences. We didn't use the word bias. We didn't want to make it sound like a negative thing, so that people would say, "That's bad. I don't do that." We just described it in neutral terms: "Sometimes people do this, do you do this?" And what we found is that people said, "Oh, gee, other people do do that. That's so great. You put that into words like that. I see that all the time.Someone's really attractive, and then they think that person is great on every dimension. But me I know, I don't really do that."

Emily Pronin: So what happened was people recognized the bias as something that people do, and they attributed it to other people, but they thought that they did it quite a bit less.

Shankar Vedantam: And the same thing happens in so many different domains. If you asked me, do you evaluate the news fairly? Are you a good judge of policy? I'll tell you, of course I am. But I can see lots of biases in the people around me. Emily, you call this the bias blind spot, what do you mean by the term?

Emily Pronin: The reason why I came to call it a bias blind spot is that a blind spot refers to a situation where you can see something all around you except in one place. And so the blind spot is seeing the bias in yourself, because it turns out that people could readily recognize these biases all around them.

Shankar Vedantam: Let's look at some specific domains where the bias blind spot affects us. When it comes to ethics, we're all quick to see conflict of interest in other people, but slow to see it when it comes to ourselves.

Emily Pronin: It's such a beautiful example. So, doctors and gifts from the pharmaceutical industry, so people have studied this. And doctors will say, "I'm not influenced by gifts." And oftentimes the gifts are small, right? They're like, you have a Pfizer pen or pad of paper. Sometimes the gifts are rather large, like, "We'd love to hear you come and give a talk on your research in the Caribbean, we'll fly you over there in a private jet to give your talk."

Emily Pronin: And a credit to the medical industry that I think they've really worked on trying to root this out because they recognized it as a problem, so there's no longer free lunches for residents every day sponsored by various drug companies as far as I understand. But the point being the doctor said that they were not influenced by these gifts, but that other doctors were. So it's a perfect example of a conflict of interest not being recognized in self, but seen in others.

Shankar Vedantam: The bias blind spot also affects how we think we are affected by marketing, and how we think others are affected by marketing. I want to play you a clip for an ad that I recently came by.

Speaker 8: GLH means great looking hair. Just spray GHL on and it instantly covers your bald spot, leaving you with great looking hair. GLH is not a paint or a cover up, it's an amazing powder that clings to the tiniest hairs on your head. Order GLH now for only 39.92 and get the [crosstalk 00:06:26].

Shankar Vedantam: So that was an ad for spray-on hair. Now, I don't think I'm influenced by advertising, whether that's commercial advertising or political advertising, but I think other people are quite vulnerable to such persuasion.

Emily Pronin: Yeah, there's a phenomenon called the third person effect, whereby people think that persuasive attempts have more of an impact on other people than themselves. So they say, "Oh, commercials, political ads, those things, I'm sort of immune to them. They don't influence me." Whereas people recognize it's a whole industry, it's influencing other people, but we see others as more susceptible to these influences than ourselves.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. How does this work in politics? When we evaluate our political opponents, how does this bias play out in our evaluations, both of people on our side and people on the other side?

Emily Pronin: Yeah, so that's a great question. And obviously, we've all been thinking about it a lot recently. So I think there's a lot of things that are going on. One is, what do I believe are the roots of my political opinions and political beliefs? And people will swear that the roots of their political beliefs are just in a rational analysis of the issue. So I take the positions I do, because those are the correct positions.

Emily Pronin: If you analyze the issues, if you analyze the state of the country, if you think about what's best for the nation, these are the correct positions. But they don't view that as being the route to the positions of those on the other side. So the other side is influenced by ideology, by self-interest by prejudice, whatever it is.

Shankar Vedantam: I was thinking about this study that came out some time ago, and this was during the Obama presidency. Gas prices were really high, and people were asking how much is the president responsible for high gas prices or low gas prices? And what was interesting is that the same group had asked the question to citizens during the presidency of George W. Bush, when also gas prices were high.

Shankar Vedantam: And what's fascinating, and perhaps unsurprising is, of course, when gas prices are high, and there's a Republican in the White House, most Republicans think the president has very little control over gas prices, and therefore should not be blamed for it. And Democrats think the president has a lot of control over gas prices and should be blamed for it. And the tables are exactly turned when you have a Democrat in the White House.

Shankar Vedantam: And so in both cases, people in a very self-interested way, see the data they have and interpret it in a way that aligns with their political beliefs. And of course, this is just one example. There must be hundreds of examples like this.

Emily Pronin: That's right. And what's amazing is it's motivated reasoning. And both of those words are important, right? So it's motivated, I'm seeing things in a way that's consistent with my motives, my prior beliefs. But it's also reasoning, because they're not just saying, "Well, I'm just going to believe whatever makes my side look better. Done." That would be just like pure motivation.

Emily Pronin: There's reasoning going on. So people are actually stopping to think, okay, well, what are the factors that influence gas prices? And who might be responsible for and what's going on on the global political stage? And so if you reason it out, these things are so complex that you can find reasons for almost anything, or at least for one of the two sides of the issue anyway.

Shankar Vedantam: There is another curious dimension of the bias blind spot. When we come up with positions on various issues, we're keenly aware of the nuances and subtleties of our opinions. But we don't extend the same respect to the views of our opponents. We very rarely say the views of the people who disagree with me are thoughtful and nuanced, right?

Emily Pronin: I think that's right. I think that there's more of a tendency to sort of stereotype and characterize others, and to recognize the nuance and complexity in our own views. And unfortunately, the political realm, I think, affords that, makes it even more likely, because people can't really express their own ambivalences and nuances, because that's seen as sort of giving in to the other side, so people do tend to portray themselves as sort of more clear and perhaps even more extreme in that respect as a result.

Shankar Vedantam: We've known for a long time that our evaluations of ourselves are very different than our evaluations of others. The Bible asks why we notice a speck of dust in our brother's eye, but ignore the beam sticking out of our own eye? When we come back, the psychological quirk that produces the radically different judgments we make of ourselves and others.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain I'm Shankar Vedantam. All of us find it remarkably easy to identify bias among other people, especially our opponents, and all of us find it maddeningly difficult to spot biases in ourselves. Psychologist Emily Pronin has spent years studying this discrepancy in our perceptions, and she has found that much of the discrepancy comes down to the different yardsticks we use in judging ourselves, and others.

Shankar Vedantam: Emily, I'm not sure if you have watched the television show Veep, but on the show, there's a character named Jonah Ryan, who decides to run for president. He's been advised that it's a bad look to be single, so he gets together with a woman who happens to be the daughter of a man his mom used to be married to, so she is his stepsister. In an interview, Jonah prefers to think of his fiancee as only his former stepsister.

Speaker 9: So what would you say to someone who might ask, how can they marry their step-siblings?

Jonah Ryan: I'm not her brother.

Emily Pendergast, as Beth Ryan: No.

Jonah Ryan: Nor have I ever been her brother.

Emily Pendergast, as Beth Ryan: Right. And the only time anyone could ever say that would be for that one year.

Jonah Ryan: I mean, it's exactly what Woody Allen did. And nobody thinks he's weird. I mean, everybody just hates him because Ants wasn't as good as A Bug's Life.

Emily Pendergast, as Beth Ryan: Exactly.

Shankar Vedantam: So this is obviously a comedy show, Emily. But I'm wondering if you can just start by explaining when it comes to our judgments of other people, what is the yardstick that we use to evaluate that they are biased?

Emily Pronin: The yardstick that we use is in one word, behavior, their actions. The process is, it's almost like if you imagine a fork in the road, and it just goes two different ways. There are just two different paths here. There's the path that we use for self-judgment, and there's the path that we use for judging others. And in my view, the path that we use for judging others is, we look at their actions. The path that we use for judging ourselves is we look inwards.

Emily Pronin: And when I say look inwards, I mean, we look to things like our thoughts, feelings, intentions, motives. So if the question is, did I marry my brother? There's an action, there's a behavior. I did it or I didn't. And that's how other people will judge it. But in judging myself, I might look much more to my motives and my intentions. Am I someone who would intend to marry their brother? No, that's weird. I would never intend to do that, so I guess I didn't do it.

Emily Pronin: And so when we are interacting with other people, what we see is them, we see their actions, we see their expressions. But when we experience ourselves, we don't really see that. Instead, what we perceive is what's inside our heads. That's the information that we're flooded with. That's the information that we can't escape, is our thoughts and feelings and intentions, so that's what we give so much weight to.

Shankar Vedantam: So one of the things that jumps out at me from what you're saying, Emily, is that our introspections, our access to our own thoughts and feelings, these are with us all the time. So we don't actually have to ask ourselves the question, how do I evaluate myself? We automatically go to looking inward to our thoughts and feelings.

Shankar Vedantam: When it comes to our evaluations of other people, in some ways, we don't have access to their thoughts and feelings, those are hidden from us and so we use what we have. And on the surface, this happens without any sort of conscious awareness that it's happening, right? So I don't realize I'm using a different yardstick to evaluate your behavior and a different yardstick to evaluate mine.

Emily Pronin: Right. I don't think that we really think about that explicitly. What we use in any judgment, psychologists can tell you, is the information that's salient. Psychologists like that term, salient. The information that's available to us, whatever's fresh in our brains is the information we use. And so it just so happens that for the self, the information that's fresh in our brains all the time is that stuff that we perceive to be in our brains, our thoughts and feelings, all that stuff that sort of just constantly there and that we're sort of constantly aware of.

Shankar Vedantam: It's not just that we use different yardsticks in evaluating ourselves and others. Each of those yardsticks is flawed and flawed in a different way. When it comes to evaluating our own behavior through introspection, we imagine that we can see all our motives and intentions, that they are accessible to us. But it turns out, that is not the case.

Emily Pronin: There's a bunch of stuff that goes on in our brain that we're not aware of, right? We're not aware of the sources of our beliefs, we're not aware of, if I go to the ice cream shop, and I choose the chocolate ice cream over the vanilla, I am aware that that was my choice. But I'm not aware why that was my choice. That's happening in the brain without my having access to it. But we sometimes forget that, so we think that we can look inwards and find out everything.

Emily Pronin: So we forget, for example, that a lot of prejudice and stereotyping happens unconsciously, and that means I can't look inwards to find it, I'm not necessarily going to have those racist intentions. That's something that people talk about a lot now. So it's not the case that just because we have access to all this information in our heads that that means it's always going to be probative for making whatever judgment we need to make.

Shankar Vedantam: Hmm, I remember speaking some years ago with the researcher Michael Tesler. He ran an interesting experiment with Republicans and Democrats. And this is back when the country was debating the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. And what Michael Tesler did is he presented volunteers with details of the Affordable Care Act, but he told some of them that the plan had been put forward by President Bill Clinton, a Democratic president who was white.

Shankar Vedantam: And he told other volunteers the plan was from Barack Obama, a Democratic president who was Black. So same plan, same details, both put forward by a Democratic president, except that one was white, and one president was Black. And what he found was that both liberals and conservatives were subtly biased by their feelings about the racial identity of the president.

Michael Tessler: White racial liberals become more supportive of a policy when it's framed as Barack Obama than when it's framed as Bill Clinton's, but white racial conservatives become less supportive of that policy.

Shankar Vedantam: And Emily, I feel like this is speaking to what you just said, if you ask liberals and conservatives, how are you evaluating this policy? They will dive into the details and say, "Here's why I like the policy, or here's why I don't like the policy." And neither will say, "My affinity or my aversion to someone from a different race might be shaping my view on something like the Affordable Care Act."

Emily Pronin: Yeah, I think that's exactly right, and it sounds like a great study. And it's not that the subjects were lying, they were saying what they believe to be the case. They assumed incorrectly that if the race of the candidate had impacted their judgment that they would know it. Now an outsider might be able to notice this pattern much more quickly, because they wouldn't be relying on their intentions, they'd just be looking at what the person did. Sometimes when we look at behavior, things can be a little bit easier to see.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, some years ago, Emily, you came up with a theory of why our introspections are unreliable. You call it the introspection illusion. What is the introspection illusion?

Emily Pronin: Although we have access to our introspections, this is sort of what it means to be a conscious person, as you know your thoughts and your feelings and your motives and your intentions, and they're there all the time in your head. We have some illusions about what that can do for us. So we think that that gives us supreme self-knowledge, sort of that we can know all sorts of things about ourselves, because we have access to this information.

Emily Pronin: We also think that our behavior is less important than knowing what's inside of our heads. In the case of ourselves, it's our intentions that are so important to know.

Shankar Vedantam: I was speaking some years ago with Mahzarin Banaji, the psychologist at Harvard, and she said something really interesting to me. She said, "If you have a problem with your heart, you might go to a cardiologist to get checked out. And when the cardiologist says, 'Here's what's wrong with your heart,' you are inclined to believe her because you think the cardiologist knows more than you do about your heart. You don't tell the cardiologist that's my heart, therefore, I must be the expert on my heart because it belongs to me."

Shankar Vedantam: But Mahzarin Banaji was saying the same thing doesn't happen with our minds. It's very hard when an expert comes along and says, "Let me explain to you how your mind works," because at some level, all of us feel like we are experts in our own minds. And that's partly, I think, connected to what you're calling the introspection illusion. It feels like our mental worlds are so rich, and we spend so much time in them that it feels in some ways we understand how they work, and in some ways that could be an illusion.

Emily Pronin: That's right. And look, it's embedded in the history of our own field. In the very early days of psychology when people wanted to understand the mind, they had people come into the laboratory, sit in a room and introspect, and they said, "This is how we're going to learn how the mind works." And then there was a huge backlash. The behaviorist came along, and they said, "This is nonsense, we cannot learn about how the mind works by asking people to report to us what's going on in their mind."

Emily Pronin: So they said, "We're getting rid of all of that. So we're just going to focus on behavior, because that is observable." And then we had sort of a third wave of cognitive psychology where we realized that there were objective strategies, empirical methods that we could use to study the mind that did not rely on people telling us what was going on to their own minds.

Shankar Vedantam: Hmm. And I think part of this also rests on the idea that if everything that happens in our mind was actually accessible to conscious introspection, we might, in fact, if we were very honest and very diligent, be able to look inside our minds and see everything. But in fact, if much of our minds actually are operating outside of our conscious awareness, what our minds are doing is simply not accessible to us through introspection.

Emily Pronin: Right, exactly. You brought up the halo effect when we were talking earlier. And the famous experiment on the halo effect comes from Tim Wilson and Richard Nisbett back in 1977. And they had people watch a video in which a professor with a "foreign accent," I'm not sure what his accent was, talking and then they asked subjects in the experiment to evaluate this professor, and half of the subjects had seen the professor in the video acting cold, not very likable, and the other half of subjects had seen him acting warm, very likeable.

Emily Pronin: And afterwards, they asked the subjects what they thought of him. And what people said in the unlikable professor condition was that they didn't like his accent, when they were asked about his accent. In the likeable condition, they did like his accent. So what happened was the likeability of the professor, which was manipulated by the experimenters influenced how much people thought the accent was likable, but they didn't realize that this had happened at all.

Emily Pronin: They had no access to what had influenced their perception of the accent. Now, we knew as experimenters, because we saw those who got the unlikable professor thought it was a bad accent. And those who got the likeable professor thought it was a good accent. So the experimenters could say, "Gee, we know how they came to this conclusion," but the subject didn't know that, the subject just looked inwards and said, "That's a bunch of hooey. Why would I evaluate someone's accent, how likable their accent is based on how nice they were? That makes no sense." They had no awareness of having done that. It occurred unconsciously and they denied it.

Shankar Vedantam: And you can see the same thing played on a much larger scale when it comes to politics. For example, we've just been through a presidential election. And of course, 90% of Republicans voted for the Republican candidate, 90% of Democrats, or higher, may have voted for the Democratic candidate. But if you ask any one of those people, why did you vote for the candidate? They will give you a whole bunch of reasons that are very nuanced about why they thought this candidate was better than the other candidate.

Shankar Vedantam: Whereas somebody who was the neutral observer from Mars might come along and say, "Well, people are just simply voting for whoever their party candidate is, it doesn't really make a difference who that candidate is." And in some ways, I feel like that's an extension of what you were just describing, there might be an underlying reason we are doing something, but once we do it, we in some ways go searching for explanations after our actions are over in some ways to justify how it is we arrived at those actions in the first place.

Emily Pronin: That's right. We think we're being rational, that we're choosing the candidate based on rational decision making and rational analysis. But really, what we're doing is we're rationalizing. Really, actually, there's other factors that have determined which candidate we prefer. And then after the fact, we rationalize it by coming up with what seemed like rational reasons.

Shankar Vedantam: And it feels like our evaluations of ourselves and others is shaped by these dual forces. On the one hand, we ascribe greater weight to our own introspections than maybe we should, but on the other, we discount the introspections of other people. So in other words, I don't think that my political opponents have actually thought very carefully about how they've chosen their course of action. I sort of can dismiss them as being easily led, as being sheep. Even as we overvalue our own introspections, we undervalue the internal thought processes of other people.

Emily Pronin: Yes. And we've even done experiments where we say, "Look, maybe the reason why people undervalue others' thought processes is that they just don't have access to them." You have such a rich access to what's going on in your head. So we will give people an entire think aloud protocol, meaning that before the subject made their decision, they thought aloud into a tape recorder. They just dumped all their thoughts, and will give that to the subject to hear and they still disregard it.

Emily Pronin: So we actually did a study with political beliefs. This was with Jonah Berger and Sarah Molouki. We made up various California propositions. One was about increasing the maximum cargo size at the Port of Los Angeles. And then we told people their party's position on them. So the Democrats support this, or the Republicans support this. And we asked them to choose their position to vote essentially. And we asked them were they influenced by their party's position?

Emily Pronin: And subjects that, "No, I wasn't influenced by that, I just evaluated the issue." Before they said what position they would take, we had them list all their thoughts. They dumped out all of their thoughts on the issue, and then we gave that to another person to also evaluate, and the other person didn't care about any of that. So people said, "I went with my thoughts, I evaluated the issue." But the outsider said, "Oh, gee, I don't need to see all those thoughts. That's not relevant. You're a Democrat, you went with the Democratic position, done, simple."

Shankar Vedantam: One of the other ideas that's connected to your work on how we overvalue the things happening in our minds, and pay less attention to the things happening in other people's minds, is a phenomenon called naive realism. Can you talk about what that is and how it connects to your work?

Emily Pronin: So much of what we're talking about today, I think is really rooted in the basic functioning of our brains. It's just how we are designed, right? So for example, we have eyes in our head. And those lead us to see other people's behaviors, but the eyes don't look inwards. And there's just sort of basic brain architecture that determines so much, and naive realism has to do with this. It has to do with the idea that there are some basic and inescapable beliefs.

Emily Pronin: And one is that I believe that I see the world as it is, an objective reality. And as a result, I think that others will see the world the same as I do. And that when others don't, I have to explain it. And the way that I tend to explain it is either by saying that they don't understand, I need to educate them, or failing that, saying, "There's something wrong with them. Either they're stupid, or they're biased."

Shankar Vedantam: You can see naive realism at work in everyday interactions. Take for example, something that the comedian George Carlin observed.

George Carlin: Have you ever noticed when you're driving that anyone who's driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.

Emily Pronin: Yes, I love that quote, it reminds me of one time I was in the kitchen preparing some food, and my seven-year-old was in the playroom with my father, his grandfather, and they were looking at different cars in a magazine. And my son kept preferring the big SUVs, and my father preferred the little boxer type of cars. And at some point, my father said to him, "I know it's a matter of taste, but your taste is stupid."

Shankar Vedantam: That's a great story. That's a wonderful story. And I feel it speaks to something that I think is really important. Parents and teachers are constantly trying to teach this lesson: don't jump to conclusions, slow down, don't assume you know what's happening in someone else's head. And yet, it's so hard to remember to practice these lessons. I mean, as a parent, and as a teacher yourself, do you sometimes go, "I'm doing the exact same thing I tell my kids not to do"?

Emily Pronin: Yes. Because these things are so automatic, and so natural. These are tendencies that we have to override in ourselves. We can't eliminate them. So the tendency to think you see the world as it is, an objective reality, and therefore, if you like the race car better than the SUV that it truly is better. That tendency is sort of inescapable. And when children do it, they don't realize even that there's a distinction when they're young, between their perception is reality.

Emily Pronin: As we get older, we come to recognize, oh, wait a second, that's a matter of taste, right? At some level, we come to realize, oh, no, no, there's different perspectives, and [inaudible]. But that initial belief that we have from childhood that my perception is reality doesn't really go away. And so it does actually feel that the car we prefer is the better one.

Shankar Vedantam: There are lots of implications that stem from what Emily calls this basic architecture of the brain. Here is one that should be familiar to all of us. If I'm late for a meeting, my mind is chock full with all the reasons I'm late: traffic was terrible, I had a childcare crisis, and so on. But if someone else is late for a meeting, I don't have access to all that stuff happening inside their heads. It's easy for me to think of them as just being irresponsible or careless. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error. Another implication of this work has to do with the phenomenon of magical thinking.

Emily Pronin: Magical thinking involves the idea that our thoughts could somehow influence the world around us. So for example, if I think ill thoughts about you, can that give you a headache? Or if I think positive thoughts about my favorite player on the team, will that help them score a goal?

Emily Pronin: And we found that in fact, this was the case. So for example, we had people think evil thoughts about someone else in the experiment. We said, we're interested in whether you could place a hex on the person and then they stuck pins in a voodoo doll. And then the other person reported a headache, because they worked for us, and we told them to.

Emily Pronin: And what happened was, if you were told to think ill about the other person before putting those pins in, you were told, "Just take a minute and think of something terrible, just think of the worst thing you can happen to this person." And then you stuck the pins on the doll, then you felt like you caused the headache and you felt bad.

Emily Pronin: And we found the same thing with basketball. Before a big university basketball game, we had people think about the different players and think about how each one of them could contribute to the game, and how would they help their teams score well, and then we asked them after the game how much impact they felt that their thoughts had on the score of the game? So they thought that they'd impacted the game when they had thought about the players doing well.

Emily Pronin: And the way that it's related is it again involves putting way too much weight on what's going on inside our heads. Because we're basically saying that what's going on inside my head could give someone else a headache, or what's going on inside my head when I sit in the stands of a basketball game could influence the player's score, how many baskets they shot? I mean, if it's a critical moment in the game, I would feel terrible getting up to leave the room and get some popcorn. I can't let my team down. How could I do that to them?

Shankar Vedantam: The introspection illusion, the bias blind spot, and naive realism have profound consequences in our daily lives. They do more than shape our thinking in basketball games. They shape life and death decisions and choices to go to war. That's when we come back.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Emily Pronin has found we judge ourselves very differently from the way we judge others. This is because we use different yardsticks while doing those two things. We evaluate others based on their behavior, but we evaluate our own actions using introspection, and it turns out introspection is not a useful guide to understanding our own minds.

Shankar Vedantam: Emily, I want to talk about some of the implications of this work and the ways in which it plays out in the real world. And I want to start with an example of something that can seem trivial, but that produces widespread conflict across the United States. I'm going to let Whoopi Goldberg explain.

Whoopi Goldberg: A survey found that one of the most common arguments this time of year in households across America is what temperature to put the thermostat at. [crosstalk 00:33:02].

Speaker 15: Everybody relates, like, oh gosh.

Speaker 16: Be more like aha, it's like I asked for a divorce.

Whoopi Goldberg: There's a lot of stuff we should be talking about because it's on the list but this interests me because I feel like everybody deals with this. If you [crosstalk 00:33:18]

Shankar Vedantam: So Emily I want to draw attention to the fact that this is a topic that you bring up -- almost everyone has an opinion about it and the opinion is often heated. Tell me how it connects to the conversation we're having about how we think about our minds, other people's minds, and the judgments we arrive at.

Emily Pronin: I just love the idea of the thermostat wars, it's so real. And I think it goes back to that quote, I know it's a matter of taste, but your taste is stupid because essentially, if I think that the temperature should be set to 73 and you think it should be set to 68, I do realize that this is a matter of taste, that there's no right answer here.

Emily Pronin: But at another level, I actually think that the temperature that I want it to be at is the correct one. And it's like that George Carlin quote, "If you wanted to be hotter than me, you're a little soft and ridiculous, and you're wasting a lot of energy. If you wanted to be colder than me, you've got to be kidding, do you really need to be that aesthetic and suffer like that? We can turn up the heat a little bit more." So we think it's a matter of taste, but we also think we're right.

Emily Pronin: And I've done some research with Nate Cheek and Shane Blackman where we show this with painting, sort of people say, "Oh, paintings, that's a matter of taste." Until someone disagrees with them about which are the nice paintings and which are the bad paintings. And then all of a sudden they say that that person is wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: Tell me a little bit more about the art study. I'm fascinated by the examples that you used and what you found.

Emily Pronin: So Shane collected some images of paintings from art history books. So these were paintings by famous artists. And they were in major museums. And they were arranged from abstract to portraits and we would show them to a subject and ask them to rate which ones they thought were truly great and which ones they thought were overrated.

Emily Pronin: And then we showed them a cover story for this of another subject who had supposedly done the same task, but that subject totally disagreed with them. So if I thought it was great, they thought it was overrated and vice versa. And then they had to evaluate this other person. And although they said that opinions on art were a matter of taste, when they saw this person who disagreed with them, they actually thought that the person was wrong and had been influenced by improper influences, because otherwise they surely would have agreed with oneself.

Emily Pronin: And we've done studies with chefs. Kobi Tsesarsky, my student, did a study with chefs, and chefs showed this exact phenomenon. There's an objectively correct amount that the meat should be cooked, that the pasta should be cooked, how much it should be salted, and those who do it the other way are wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to point to something that you said earlier that I think might connect with this, which is in some ways, when we think about our own subjective conclusions, when we think about a painting, or how long pasta should be cooked, we're actually not thinking of this as being subjective, it genuinely feels as if we have amassed a whole bunch of objective data, and arrive to this conclusion that in some ways feels objective. So we might say, yes, my taste in art and music is subjective, but it actually feels like it's not, that it's actually objective.

Emily Pronin: And part of it is that when things come to us through the senses, it comes so quickly that we do not feel the operation of the mind being involved. I know if I preferred to get the chocolate ice cream to the mint chip ice cream, but if you ask me why I simply don't have access to that. And so it doesn't feel like there's been all these intervening processes that could have biased it.

Emily Pronin: So when the piece of food hits my mouth and I think that it has too much salt, I don't have access to any brain processes that are influencing that judgment. It's just, that's too salty. And it's an immediate feeling. And because it is so immediate, it's hard to imagine that it could have been biased by anything.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if this is connected in some ways, Emily, to other work that you have done that looks at how we perform during interviews, but also how we judge other people during interviews. So we all think that we can sit before someone for half an hour, talk to them and get a pretty good sense of whether this person is a good fit for a job. But if someone were to come along and say, "Oh, we can talk to you for half an hour and figure out if you are a good fit for the job," we say that's clearly inadequate because I'm so much more complex than anything that can be ascertained in 30 minutes.

Emily Pronin: Right, so there's a term, the interview illusion, which I did not coin. And it was about this idea that it's an illusion that you can tell so much from an interview. If I want to know whether you're going to be a good brick layer, it's probably a lot more valuable for me to watch you lay bricks, and for me to ask your five prior bosses how well you laid bricks, than for me to sit down and interview you about how good of a brick layer you are. And yet people love interviews.

Emily Pronin: And even psychologists, we do job interviews. Why do we do that? We could just ask the people who've worked with the person, we could ask their advisors to write letters, and we could read their work, but we do interviews as well. And we put a lot of weight on them.

Emily Pronin: And the work that I did, we actually had people come into the laboratory in pairs. These were students who'd never met each other and they talk to each other for a half an hour. And we found that at the end of the half an hour, they felt like they'd really come to know the other person, but that the other person had not really come to know them. So you could only get a small understanding and a small glimpse of who I am from that conversation, but I've got the whole you.

Emily Pronin: And part of that has to do with the fact that I know all the stuff about me that you didn't find out from that conversation. I'm aware of all the stuff I didn't say. All the stuff I said that maybe was misleading about who I really am. I've got all that, but I don't have all that about you.

Shankar Vedantam: You can see how these biases might play out in the context not just of interpersonal conflict, but geopolitical conflict. If you think you see the world accurately and I don't, if you try to set me straight and find you can't change my views, what are you to conclude? The simplest explanation is that I can't be trusted. There's no point trying to understand me, or reason with me, or negotiate with me, because I must be either stupid or evil.

Emily Pronin: It's not just people's actions that influence how we want to respond to them. It's also our beliefs about what those actions stem from. And if we believe that individuals are biased, that their mental processes are biased, then we don't believe that it makes sense to try to reason with them.

Shankar Vedantam: Is there any evidence that teaching people about the ways in which our minds work, that it actually changes the way they can actually perceive the conflict and perhaps respond differently?

Emily Pronin: When people learn about these different biases, they're initially very optimistic that what we need to do is educate people about the biases. So if I just tell people, like my students, here's the different biases that people engage in, that that should solve the problem. They'll say, "Gee, I didn't know about all those biases." And the idea is now that I know about them, I won't do them. But as you know, that's not how it works, because what happens is they say, "Gee, I didn't have words for all those biases, but now that you've told me the words, they give me a great vocabulary for describing what all the people around me keep doing." So that doesn't work. That doesn't work.

Emily Pronin: But what Matthew Kugler and I tried was instead to educate people about the importance of unconscious processes. And we taught people about how a lot of our judgments are rooted in things we don't have access to, so that a lot of things are automatic and a lot of things are biased. And so we tried to educate them about essentially the introspection illusion, the illusion that we could have access to all these things. And the fact that instead much of it is occurring automatically and is biased.

Emily Pronin: And then we asked people to complete our usual bias blind spot measure, where they read about various biases, and then people no longer showed a bias blind spot. So once they understood about the operation of the unconscious and how these things happen automatically, they no longer claimed to be less biased than others. So then they said, "Gee, maybe I am biased." Maybe looking inwards and not seeing bias is not the best way to conclude whether I'm biased or not.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you give me a concrete example of a time when you used your own research to change how you thought about something important or to change your own behavior?

Emily Pronin: I don't know if I can give you a single important example, but I think that as a parent, I find it happening with me all the time that I'm talking to my kids about someone in our lives who's done something that sort of has irritated us in some way. Somebody canceled on a plan that we had or said something that was insensitive. And I find myself doing that thing where I'm about to jump to the fundamental attribution error and I'm about to say, "Gee that was mean, or inconsiderate, or lazy, or whatever." And then I've got my kids there with me, oh, this is not what I want to teach my children.

Emily Pronin: And so I say, "Wait a second, I know it might seem like the person was being inconsiderate, but maybe they were having a really hard day." I try to sort of teach them and to remind myself to think about people's circumstances instead of jumping right away to that dispositional attribution.

Shankar Vedantam: Emily, as I'm thinking about your work, I'm realizing that many miscommunications might happen because our thoughts seem so clear to us, but we do a terrible job communicating those thoughts to others. Things in our mind seem so clear and looms so large to us that we somehow assume they must be clear to others as well.

Emily Pronin: Yeah, it's interesting. I think of the example of breakups, romantic breakups, and people sort of, they want to be kind, and they want to be considerate, and they want to do it nicely, not always. And then the other person is left totally confused and says, "Oh, you know, yeah, I think we're just taking a break for a few days, or we just hit a rough patch," and the other person thinks they have successfully broken up and ended the relationship.

Emily Pronin: But we forget that our intentions, what we're intending to do is to break up, to close the door, but to do it in a very kind and considerate way. And what the other person thinks is that you've sent a bunch of mixed messages and you're leaving the door open. And so this is just one of so many examples where we don't recognize our lack of transparency and what we haven't communicated because it's so obvious to us.

Shankar Vedantam: I don't know if you're a fan of the show "Parks and Recreation." But there was an incident on "Parks and Rec" that basically is almost exactly the same lines where one party is breaking up with another. But they break up so politely and so kindly that the other party thinks, "Great, we've had a wonderful chat, the relationship is now on to a higher level than it was before." And one party thinks they’re broken up and the other party thinks, wow, we're really in a good place now.

Rashida Jones, as Ann Perkins: So you're leaving soon.

Rob Lowe, as Chris Traeger: Back to Indianapolis briefly, and then on to a town called Snerling, Indiana for several months.

Rashida Jones, as Ann Perkins: Never heard of it.

Rob Lowe, as Chris Traeger: It's quite small, the cows outnumber the people 40 to 1.

Shankar Vedantam: And then after Chris moves, Ann tracks him down, storms into his house, and accuses him of cheating on her.

Rob Lowe, as Chris Traeger: Oh God.

Ann: I'm so sorry, honey. I'm so embarrassed. I was scared that you were cheating on me.

Rob Lowe, as Chris Traeger: No, I'm not cheating on you, but I'm also not dating you. We broke up last week.

Emily Pronin: Yeah, I'm laughing, but it's actually sad. I mean, it actually causes a lot of suffering in reality.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, we've just been through a really bruising, political year Emily, and the country as a whole has been very divided. And a lot of people are really asking, is it possible for us to come together as a nation after a very bitter political fight? I'm wondering if you were to give advice to the nation based on the work that you have done, what would that advice look and sound like?

Emily Pronin: I mean, I think one thing I would say is that if you were judging yourself by all your positive intentions, your good feelings. If your intentions are that you want the country to be in a better place, that you want people to thrive, don't assume that others' intentions are different from your own. And if you put a lot of weight on your intentions, those others' intentions would deserve just that same amount of weight.

Emily Pronin: So we owe some charity in judging others behavior by giving some weight to their intentions. And we should not assume that their intentions are so different from our own. And if we can start with that, and start with the charity of trying to find the positive intentions in others, then maybe there is some hope but it's so hard to do, especially when things are so divided, and feel so divided.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Emily Pronin teaches at Princeton University. Emily, thanks for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Emily Pronin: Thank you so much for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is Max Lenowitz. Max is an onboarding manager at Justworks, the company that handles payroll for Hidden Brain Media.

Shankar Vedantam: Max worked closely with us as we were launching our company, and he patiently answered our many questions about how to pay employees and track things like vacation and sick time. His good cheer made a busy time feel less stressful. Thank you, Max, for helping us to find our feet. For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter or at hiddenbrain.org. If you like today's show and like our program, please be sure to share it with a friend. If they don't know how to subscribe to our podcast, please show them. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.

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