Most of us like to think that we are in-control of our actions.

Turns out, your brain can be a big jerk, and you are susceptible to a large list of cognitive biases and natural reactions that tend to hold you back from acting objectively. Luckily, some good social psychology books (spurred on by well-research papers & experiments!) have revealed a large amount of these biases to the common reader.

Today, we’re going to take a look at 5 notorious social biases and discuss ways that you can recognize and react when your brain is trying to pull a fast one on you.

1.) Fundamental attribution error

This is a very insidious bias that we all fall victim to from time-to-time.

The calling card of the fundamental attribution error is when we place a large amount of emphasis on situational explanations when rationalizing when things happen to us, but we use personality-based explanations when rationalizing what happens to others.

As an example:

If Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (personal/dispositional).

If Alice tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

First uncovered by the classic study The attribution of attitudes, there are STILL no concrete explanations to explain it’s occurrence.

Some of the more common reasons cited include:

  • The just-world phenomenon: our brains are naturally inclined to have a belief that the world is balanced or “fair”, and that things that happen to others happen for a reason. While we often see other people this way, we have a tendency to see ourselves as “victims” instead.
  • Salience of the actor: individuals capture our attention, so when observing their situation, we are focused on them, when observing our own situation, we focus on the environment.
  • Automaticity & processing: we often process things on a subconscious level, and it’s often easier for our brain to wave away a situation as happening “just because they deserve it” rather than looking at the circumstances.

Dealing with it: Unfortunately, there isn’t much beyond an agreed list of “best practices” when it comes to dealing with the fundamental attribution error (it’s that pervasive!).

The best I’ve got for you is to remind yourself of the old adage of, “Walking a mile in someone’s shoes,” and determining if the situation is playing a major role in the event.

For instance, if a beginner makes a mistake, recall a time when you were a beginner yourself at the same activity or another; it’s likely that your nervousness, inexperience and other outside factors caused you to make some errors as well.

2.) The Halo effect

The Halo effect is an attributional bias where our brain makes judgements about the character or competency of others based off of our general impression of them. In some cases, it can be viewed as a form of social proof.

The problem occurs when these impressions are wrong, and since they are often based off of superficial judgements (such as if the person is attractive to us), we can be wrong quite often.

What is also worrisome is that this bias seems to be present even at the highest levels of society in realms where objectivity should rule. In fact, it’s been shown that on average, attractive people serve shorter prison sentences than others who were convicted of similar crimes.

Dealing with it: The most important way to battle against this bias is to try and detach yourself from the person at hand and to take the actions in as much of a “vacuum” as you are able.

If the same action were committed by someone whom you didn’t admire, would it impact you the same way? We have a tendency to get swept up in the stories of others, so ask yourself if the “mystique” about someone was gone, would you perceive their actions differently?

It’s important to ask yourself these questions when trying to objectively evaluate the actions of someone who may have left a strong impression on you or is someone who you truly respect: those qualities don’t always lead to the person being right.

3.) Naive cynicism

The “Naive cynicism” bias occurs quite often, even in the most trusting of people.

It states that people are, on average, likely to assume that others have more of an egocentric bias than themselves. This means that people believe that others are more likely to be egocentric than themselves when dealing with people.

We often have data to show that this is not the case (statistically speaking), such as how Malcom Gladwell (in Blink) showed that most people do not sue their doctors when injured due to negligence, despite the often pervasive idea that patients are always taking advantage of malpractice in this manner.

In one series of experiments, groups including married couples, video game players, darts players and debaters were asked how often they were responsible for good or bad events relative to a partner.

Participants evenly apportioned themselves for both good and bad events, but expected their partner to claim more responsibility for good events than bad events than they actually did.

Dealing with it: The important thing to remember about this bias is that it’s more of an outlook on others.

While circumstance often plays a huge role in people’s outlook on the world (those born in a crowded, crime-ridden city may have different views on other people than those who grew up in a quiet suburb), but it’s important to remember that there are a LOT of people in the world and that, on average, most people evaluate situations in the same fashion that you do.

People by and large will give credit where it’s due, and you should try to react to situations where you have some sort of inclination that the opposite will happen, not just assume that everyone is more egocentric than yourself.

4.) In-group favoritism

This one probably didn’t need a study to confirm it, am I right? 😉

It’s very obvious to many of us that people favor those who are in “their” group, but there is something a lot scarier about this bias than you may realize: people often form groups from the most trivial distinctions.

In a notorious study called Social categorization and intergroup behaviour, social psychologist Henri Tajfel was able to show that people could be placed into groups from meaningless choices (choosing between two painters who they had never met) and then have these choices affect their reactions when it came time to dole out real rewards.

Think about that.

People who chose the same painter (again, the choice was meaningless) would then, when queued to deal out real rewards to any participant, chose to FAVOR those who chose the same painter and DISCRIMINATE against those who didn’t.

To make matters worse, in a study on customer loyalty programs, consumer researchers showed that people became more loyal to the programs when they new that they were in a “gold” class and above other people enrolled in the program, showing that meager distinctions of superiority can make people more loyal to a supposed in-group.

Additional studies have shown that things as shallow as similar purchases can trigger the effect. So if you meet someone and they also own some tennis racquets, terrariums, a pair of Crocs, or a Dolphin Power Boat (yes, that’s real), you are susceptible to In-group favoritism rearing it’s ugly head. Meeting someone with a common item, such as a guy who also wears pants, probably won’t trigger the effect, or at least I hope so…

Dealing with it: This (as with all of these biases) is tough to handle, but this one is especially tricky because it can we can encounter it due to the actions of others.

To maintain our own objectivity, the best way is to envision an interaction without group constructs in place.

If this or that person weren’t connected with you in some way, would you still feel the same about their actions? Conversely, if someone from the “other team” were on your side, would their actions be different in your eyes?

It’s important to consider these distinctions when evaluating individual situations because, as the research shows, we can be heavily influence by them.

5.) Dunning-Kruger effect

No list would be complete without this one.

The Dunning-Kruger effect states that unskilled individuals are likely to suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.

Conversely, those who are highly competent may have feelings of inferiority, because they believe everybody else has the same competency that they do.

According to Charles Darwin:

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

It turns out that he was far more correct than many of us would like to admit.

In some very recent research (2008), Dunning & Kruger asserted that individuals who were most likely to suffer from illusory superiority were those who were disinclined to receive feedback from others on their performance.

Blocking out of any critiques allowed them to create a sense of accomplishment that wasn’t necessarily true.

Dealing with it: Lacking confidence in oneself is just as bad as being overconfident. What then can we do to avoid falling victim to both sides of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

I think that the solution is best addressed in one of my favorite quotes:

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Focusing on improving yourself and not worrying about the performance of others or your skill in relation to them.

It’s fine to be competitive, but when you spend too much time analyzing what other people are doing (especially if it’s not for a competitive sport or activity), you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment as you set goals based on other people’s lives rather than your own.

Over to You

I’d like to hear from you: which of these social biases do you encounter most often? Do you find yourself getting tricked by any in particular?

See you in the comments, and thanks for reading!

About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is a content marketing manager at Help Scout, the help desk software built fornice guys finish last - Gregory Ciotti companies who insist on delivering an exceptional customer experience.

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Written by Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti is a content marketing manager at Help Scout, the customer support software for businesses who insist on delivering a delightful experience. Get more from Greg on the Help Scout blog.

  • Very neat stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  • Gregory, you speak to me! I’m going right back to psychology lectures (I’ve 2 psychology degrees for my sins).

    Business really is a lot about psychology more than anything else, and it’s human psychology rather than business psychology as usually touted.

    Well done, fabulous post. Absolutely marvellous.

  • Great info!!

  • Oh man, my scumbag brain gets me with in-group favoritism all the time. For example, I have fierce brand loyalty to Converse All Stars, so whenever I met someone who’s also wearing them, I automatically think that they are awesome. For all I know, they’re totally not.

    Really great stuff to think about, Greg!

  • Great post Leo, people are assume that they are smarter/nicer/look better/etc.. than others.
    That’s called the optimism bias,
    people are optimistic always about themselves (We’re more likely to succeed, we’re less likely to suffer from diseases) comparing to their colleagues.

    Tali Sharot, has a great TED talk about it

    Cheers from NYC

  • Your comments on the Fundamental Attribution error reminded me of a blog post I titled: “Waking Up as Somebody Else.” Your reference to “Walking a mile in someone’s shoes” especially triggered it.

    I started out: What if you woke up tomorrow morning, but with something different about
    you? You woke up not as who you are. You woke up as somebody else. I then offered three doors (like on Let’s Make a Deal). And behind Door #1, 2 & 3 I had hyperlinks to pictures of a homeless man, a man behind bars (in jail) and a women with cancer (undergoing chemotherapy). I challenged readers to pick a door, think about the person they chose and especially what he or she had to face each day awaking to their particular situation. I can’t tell you how much it made me get my eyes off myself just writing it. But we go back to judging others so quickly, don’t we? (I sure do.)

    Thanks for such a great article, Greg. The explanations of each of these natural reactions and how they affect our decisions was great. Could come back to this again and again.

  • Interesting study and great information. Generally speaking, this reaffirms/supports the claim that the vast majority of decisions are made emotionally. Even though we (myself included) tend to think we are highly rational and logical in our decision making process. Good stuff.

  • There is so much wisdom in the Hemingway quote it is hard to overestimate it…… but that might just be my bias!

  • Are these not merely examples of vanity? Do people think that they will become more self-aware by memorizing such cant?

  • In regards to blunder numbero uno:
    1.) Fundamental attribution error

    “First uncovered by the classic study The attribution of attitudes, there are STILL no concrete explanations to explain its occurrence.”

    I can tell you the reason for this is pride, and perhaps to some degree selfishness. Human beings by their very nature are prideful and selfish. Think about it for a moment… If you’re good at reading between the lines you will already know I am coming from a Biblical standpoint. It is not necessary to be a Christian to see the wealth of psychological knowledge that can be gained from the Bible. But anyone who has been a Christian for even a short while can see that most of the points you mentioned here can simply be traced back to pride (or vanity as another commenter attested). And if not pride then selfishness, which is simply a lack of love for anyone but ones self.

    In my, unbiased as humanly possible, there is not just concrete evidence but steel framed, rhebar enforced, diamond-coated evidence that pride leads to mental (and spiritual) retardation and thus this very interesting list of five things that we all do.

  • Suarez from the car park…

    Many commenters have mentioned vanity as a root of these characteristics which surely is all about power and security and our survival instincts. Wouldn’t it be more useful to frame the characteristics in these terms?

    At work it’s interesting how some people have implicit trust in you while many don’t.

    I have had incredibly sceptical reactions from colleagues at work when given project responsibilities in areas they have NO expertise in – when I am not within their management structures, while at the same time enjoying great confidence from superiors.

    And the other interesting interaction is social – people clearly make very early judgements about you before you’ve ever spoken to them or very quickly in your first encounter.

    Why do some people appear to ‘write you off’ almost immediately while others respond very positively. It certainly has little to do with being ‘nice’ to people.

    Questions, questions…..

  • Paul G

    How about tips on “dealing with” in-group favoritism from the outside?

  • Warminghut

    Algorithm vs. heuristics. In the real world, our brains using heuristics are the difference between reacting in a timely manner and standing there with mouth agape unable to act. I guarantee many of the heuristics human brains use to make decisions have saved your life many times. That being said, heuristics by definition make shortcuts and thus errors.
    As for the heuristics you mention above, may I suggest that these are neither distinct nor really all that accurate as descriptions of our heuritics. They are, however, good representations of the social and cognitive psychological research literature. Which is to say it is largely a garbled mess of studies done primarily on college freshmen psych students in very tightly controlled studies that put these students in very unnatural situations.
    So external validity of the heuristics listed is low, internal consistency is high which suggests these heauritics vary a lot less than the labels givemn to them by researchers hoping to distinguish their work from others, etc.
    Bottom line: Humans use heuristics unless they are non-naive participants provided enough time and motivation to give more in depth analysis. Then they tend to use more alforithmic methods such as the scientific method to make decisions.


    Ego bias prevents the greatest hurdle in the Personal Olympics which is variously “getting over one’s self” or “taking it personal”. Doing the hard work of thinking is the only thing that makes one free, not joining up with the right ‘members only club’.

  • Khairudin Maliki

    Nice info 🙂

  • leilanigl

    Great article!

    I’m going to be that jerk who posts about a copy error. Know that I do it out of love… second graph: “Luckily, some good social psychology books (spurred on by well-researchED papers & experiments!) have revealed a large amount of these biases to the common reader.”

  • Yeah

    What about out-group favoritism? I can tell it happens, maybe because people are too scared to fall into the in-group favoritism.

  • I’m definitely a ‘victim’ of the Dunning-Kruger effect. For a long time, I downplayed my art abilities as nothing significant or important and had a really hard time accepting compliments. To this day even, it’s difficult for me to embrace a compliment, my tendency is to redirect it, or dismantle it. But, it’s okay to take pride in what you do, and celebrate your skill/knowledge…

    CS Lewis has said some good stuff on this topic as well—regarding a truer understanding, and application, of Pride and Humility:

    Pride ≠ Thinking too much of yourself
    Pride = Thinking of yourself, too much

    Humility ≠ Thinking less of yourself
    Humility = Thinking of yourself, less

    He also has a lot to say about inner-circles and group think… and more importantly, our fear of being left out of inner-circles and groups.

  • Absolutely true. Sometimes our brains are what keep us from doing what’s right. That’s why managing them should be the art. Nice! This helps a lot.

    I thought of the ways on how to decide the good way too. Check out at