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The Psychology of Bias

Updated: Jan 15

Imagine you are a girl walking down the street alone at night and you see a man in a hoodie start running in your direction. Odds are that he is just a guy jogging on your street, but why does this make you so nervous?

Allow me to introduce you to the concept of an alief. Aliefs are essentially subconscious, belief-like states, or ways of thinking that influence our actions and behaviors. Aliefs were first introduced by Tamar Gendler in her paper, “Alief and Belief.” An interesting thing to note is that you do not even have to really believe it is true for the alief to affect your actions.

As Tamar Gendler describes them, aliefs are “associative, automatic, and irrational.” They have three major associated components: The representation of an object/concept, experiencing an emotional state, and how they frequently lead to actions (motor routines, as he calls them).

Gendler provides the example of a Skywalk, which is when you walk out onto a glass platform high up. The adrenaline rush and the words “I did it” tell you that it was a brave and bold thing to do. Though, Gendler argues that you would not have stepped onto the Skywalk if you actually thought there was any danger.

On one hand, you must believe it is safe to step onto the Skywalk or you would not have considered it. The hesitation and fear you might feel, though, is caused by your alief—even if you know it is not the case.

In this scenario and many others, there is an implicit and automatic alief that goes against what you actually believe. This can result in a belief-behavior mismatch, the term for when one’s behaviors contradict what one believes. Many people pride themselves on acting based on their values and beliefs, but that is not always the case. An alief can influence these actions.

Take Paul Rozin’s experiment for instance. In the experiment, participants pour sugar into two vials. One of which was labeled as previously holding poison, but is obviously clean, and the other being a vial that is clean and has no label. The participants then pour the sugar from the vials into glasses and choose one to add water to and drink from. They almost always picked the cup with sugar from the unlabeled vial. This goes to show how even although the subjects knew that both vials were clean, they still went with what they believed was “safer.” Rozin’s experiments showed that people have biases that they know are not the case, but are still impacted by.

Another example of an alief would be if you were at a restaurant on a first date. You take a sip of your drink and it tastes oddly acidic. You might get worried it was drugged… even if it was never out of sight. You would then decide to not drink it, even though you know subconsciously that there is no real reason to be hesitant.

This is also an example of a belief-discordant alief: an alief that complicates a pre-existing thought or opinion. On the show Brain Games, people were presented with two different types of brownies. One set of brownies was shaped normally but had a mediocre recipe. The other set was advertised as deluxe and fudgy but was shaped like dog poop. Most people chose the first set even though they knew the second ones were still just brownies.

Aliefs are present in everyday life: things you know are not true, but act on anyway. Noticing the difference between aliefs and beliefs is the first step to understanding your own actions. Beyond even your own actions, keeping aliefs in mind can help you understand other people’s actions. This is essential to know, especially in a day and age where implicit bias is more rampant than ever.

By: Sarah Frank

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