What are cognitive biases?

Before taking ENS 111, I could not have told you what a cognitive bias was. I had heard bias a lot in my profession of journalism (constantly being accused of it will do that to you), however I had never biases with a qualifier. Diving deeper in this topic led me to a lot of other things, such as Impostor Syndrome (which I wrote an in-depth feature on, coming soon on Elon News Network), and how bias is not an inherently bad thing.

Read on to see my thoughts on cognitive bias

I think the most important part of this article is remembering that biases are not inherently bad, rather they are inherently human. Every human being has biases informed by life experiences, whether by way of socialization or trauma or simply a day-to-day experience. If we keep this in mind, bias is not so much as a barrier as it is something to understand, and to work with rather than around or through. 

Some biases, while not inherently bad, do inform harmful decisions. While someone who has experienced trauma has every reason to avoid triggering situations or make decisions informed by their trauma, those decisions still may not be the most moral or fair decisions. 

(Obviously in terms of viewpoints that harm others, such as racism/xenophobia/homophobia/misogyny, are not biases but rather prejudices, which can be understood only as hateful)

When I searched “cognitive biases” on Bing (I will die on this hill, the superior search engine), the first hit was Bing’s guide to anti-racism. I think this is interesting because when I think of bias, I think of biases I have as a woman rather than racial biases. I think of my view on sexual assault and gender based violence, how my first question when I’m looking at internships is often how does this company support women. I view everything through the lens of my womanhood because for me, that is the identity I hold closest. However I would imagine if someone held their sexual identity or racial identity closest, their answers and biases would be very different than mine. This got me thinking about how tailored biases can be. I bet if I asked ten different people what their biases are, or what they think bias is, I will get ten different responses. While this is really interesting and reinforces why diverse spaces are not just necessary but imperative, I think this also makes cognitive biases that much more layered. Inherently, that’s not a problem, but the more challenging something is to understand, the less likely people will be to work to understand it.

As I read over my revisions, I think another dimension I can continue to explore is how bias relates to objectivity, something as a journalist I think of a lot. Cognitive biases impact us in many different ways, but as a journalist, I think my biases impact myself and others in potentially more dangerous ways. If I am biased and do not look for the “other” side or another side, my story will be incomplete. As my mother has told me since I was a child, a half truth is a full lie. 

A good example of this narrative I think is often present in cable news. (I will acknowledge that I am a primarily print/web based reporter, so I do have some bias.) Because cable news stories are so much shorter than a written article, oftentimes reporters are forced to pick the most emotional quotes or the information that sounds the best rather than the most important (you learn very early that broadcast/cable/tv news is written for the ear, not the eye). These reporters are not lying — the quotes they air are what their sources said. The information that sounds great is still true. However, if you leave out part of the story, you now have only halfway educated someone. Yes some of that is incumbent on the consumer to fully educate themselves, but it is a little messier when you get into the weeds of how we tell stories.

Now, add biases. When a reporter is deciding whether or not to include information, part of that decision comes from the skills they learned in journalism school or the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. However some of it is their personal experiences, biases and motivations. Even messier!

But I do not think “messy” is inherently bad. I think messy simply requires thought, honesty and intention. As journalists, we need to address our biases, and remember that as much as we try to be objective, you cannot completely eliminate how you as a human being respond to a story, no matter how much journalism training or experience you have.