Debiasing refers to the wide variety of techniques, methods, and interventions that are designed to eliminate or lessen potential errors, distortions, or other mistakes in people’s thinking, judgment, or decision making. Specific debiasing techniques can be placed into three general categories: (1) cognitive, involving things like changes in the ways in which decision makers conceptualize a problem; (2) motivational, involving things like changes in the ways in which incentives or punishments are allocated to decision makers; or (3) technological, involving things like changes in the ways in which computers and other technological advances can be employed to assist in problem solving.
Because people are imperfect and fallible decision makers, no matter which techniques are ultimately implemented, the term debiasing is normally used to refer to something that occurs to a relative degree rather than something that occurs completely.
Debiasing Background and Importance
When there are problems, people quite naturally look for possible solutions. People are certainly skilled enough in their decision making to get through life perfectly fine most of the time, but they are also often unskilled enough to make predictable mistakes in their judgments. For the human decision maker, the glass is thus both half full and half empty.
Although debiasing research occasionally appears to be overshadowed somewhat by research demonstrating various biases—it may seem more noteworthy to show that something is broken rather than to show how to fix it—both debiasing and biasing are equally important to fully understanding decision making. Just as the study of biases can supply a roadmap predicting the conditions under which judgmental mistakes are likely to occur, the study of debiasing can supply a roadmap describing what might be done about these mistakes.
Evidence for Debiasing Techniques
Evidence supporting the three general categories of debiasing techniques is fairly extensive and comes from diverse sources. This is illustrated with some specific examples.
Perhaps one of the best-researched cognitive debiasing techniques requires people to consider the opposite of their initial impressions before making a final decision. The strategy essentially entails asking, “Are there reasons why my initial judgment may be wrong?” For example, with the hindsight bias, people are most apt to come up with reasons supporting known outcomes, and thus those outcomes seem inevitable. Thinking about the opposite can work as a debiasing intervention by directing people’s attention to alternative outcomes that might not have otherwise received adequate consideration. This debiasing technique seems to work especially well when people can easily think of opposing alternatives.
Other cognitive debiasing techniques involve education and training. People who know the correct rule to calculate the area of a parallelogram simply make fewer errors than those who do not. Similar to mathematics, one presumption is that other judgmental rules might likewise be taught. For example, once people learn that large samples represent a population better than small samples, this can lead to more accurate decision making. Educational training seems to be most effective when decision rules are concrete and directly applicable.
Motivations can similarly influence debiasing. For example, people have a general propensity to simplify the world by categorizing things. An object with a flat platform, straight back, and four legs, may be characterized as a chair. However, one particularly negative consequence of this tendency is stereotyping. People may similarly characterize others just because they think the person belongs to a particular group. Although debate exists regarding the extent to which stereotyping is automatic, incentives such as considering future interactions with a person can sometimes lead to less reliance on stereotypes and more reliance on personalized information. Punishments, such as considering retribution for acting in prejudiced ways, may also lead people to put greater effort into decisions, resulting in less bias.
Accountability motives can also be used to debias. For example, if people expect they will have to explain their reasoning to others, they are more likely to put greater effort into a decision. When preparing to justify decisions to others, people seem better able to anticipate possible flaws in their own reasoning. Incentives or punishments can be social or monetary.
Technological advances, notably the widespread dispersion of computers, have further increased the potential for debiasing. In fact, many decision-making tasks are simply too complex and time consuming to carry out without the assistance of technology; for example, consider the complexities of launching the Space Shuttle. Complex decision tasks are known to be more susceptible to biases and errors. It thus seems logical, at least superficially, that computers can aid complex calculations and help lead to more accurate judgments.
Technological advances in the form of various algorithms to arrive at particular decision outcomes relatedly can result in greater debiasing. Complex equations can now be accurately solved in nanoseconds. Of course, the weak link in technology still may be the human decision makers running the computers and writing the programs.
General Implications of Debiasing
People have many highly useful and often adaptive decision-making strategies, but sometimes these strategies are susceptible to errors, distortions, or other mistakes. Debiasing techniques have been devised as attempts to eliminate or at least minimize these. However, successful debiasing requires at least four things. Decision makers must (1) be aware of the potential bias, (2) be motivated to correct the bias, (3) recognize the direction and magnitude of the bias, and (4) be able to adequately control or adjust for the bias. Together, these things may not always be achievable. The extent to which people’s biases can be effectively debiased thus has very profound implications for virtually all thinking, judgment, and decision making.
- Arkes, H. R. (1991). Costs and benefits of judgment errors: Implications for debiasing. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 486-498.
- Larrick, R. P. (2004). Debiasing. In D. J. Koehler & N. Harvey (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of judgment and decision making (pp. 316-337). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Wilson, T. D., & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 117-142.