Scientists are at the mercy of cognitive bias, too

How Scientists Can Fool Themselves—And How They Can Stop
How Scientists Can Fool Themselves—And How They Can Stop

Guess what? Cognitive bias also influences researchers. Important to bear in mind with research in education.

So here’s another few cognitive biases we can add to our list:

  1. Hypothesis Myopia
  2. Texas Sharpshooter
  3. Aysmmetric Attention
  4. Just-So Storytelling



The Majority Illusion

DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s another cognitive bias to add to our list: the majority illusion. This illusion is not only important to consider for those of us who wade through social media frequently, but more importantly, for those of us who work in schools.

The majority illusion refers to “the local impression that a specific attribute is common when the global truth is entirely different,” according to a recent article on network research on MIT Technology Review.

Kids are especially influenced by their immediate social networks, in addition to their online ones. This study suggests that we are most especially susceptible to the habits and perceptions of our more popular or well-connected acquaintances, believing that many others may be doing or thinking what they are, even when it may only reflect that of a few (big surprise). This can be understood both in its positive and negative effects:

In other words, the majority illusion can be used to trick the population into believing something that is not true.

. . . that immediately explains a number of interesting phenomena. For a start, it shows how some content can spread globally while other similar content does not—the key is to start with a small number of well-connected early adopters fooling the rest of the network into thinking it is common.

. . . Various studies have shown that teenagers consistently overestimate the amount of alcohol and drugs their friends consume. “If heavy drinkers also happen to be more popular, then people examining their friends’ drinking behavior will conclude that, on average, their friends drink more than they do,” say Lermann and co.

This points to a potential key to shifting the mindsets and behavior of an entire school: “identify the popular nodes that can create the majority illusion for the target audience. These influencerati must then be persuaded to adopt the desired behavior or product.”

Get the most well-connected kids sold on the importance of learning and reading first. You might then see a big shift in the attitudes of others.

Become Aware of Your Cognitive Biases

el cerebro

We’ve explored the fallibility of human perception, given the influence of environment, contexts, social relationships, incidental stimuli, stereotypes, and heuristics on this blog before (see especially, How Can We Mitigate the Errors in Our Minds?).

Anyone who pays heed to education reform debates will be witness to—and perpetrator of—any number of biases. Lifehacker shared a great graphic from Business Insider‘s Samantha Lee and Shana Lebowitz that outlines some possible cognitive biases.

Screenshot from 2015-09-20 12:54:39

Such biases are also important to consider in our classrooms and schools. Stereotyping bears a well-studied impact on the behavior and performance of students, but what about the impact of these other cognitive biases? How many of these might arise during a team meeting or in classroom interactions? I can think of any number of “data inquiry” meetings where these biases have been on full display.

Another great resource I’d like to point you to is The site has freely available quizzes and lessons that will help you to understand the fallibility in your own thinking and become more aware of your biases. I especially like their tool on the Probabilistic Fallacy.

I’ll leave you with an interesting TED Talk (conducted at Burning Man, no less) from the founder of, Spencer Greenberg, on how you can use “probabilistic thinking” to overcome what he terms “dichotomous thinking”: