Biases Are Optical Illusions

Today I read something that made me stop and think. The behavioural economist Dan Ariely said:

Behavioral biases affect everyone, including those of us who study them. Biases are like optical illusions: Even when we know what we’re seeing isn’t real, we can’t help seeing it.

from Ask Ariely
Lazing Around from Max Pixel

This goes a long way to explaining why we stay on the couch when we intend to exercise or we eat snack food in the evenings when we are trying to lose weight. We believe the illusion that we are fitter and thinner, not the reality.

It also explains why we continue to believe in our favourite politician even sometimes in the face of their incompetence or wrongdoing. We see only the illusion of their philosophy and promises.

Ariely also said:

The way we behave is usually governed by what people around us are doing, especially those we perceive as being in our own social group.

From Ask Ariely
South Korean National Football Team
via Wikimedia Commons

If my neighbours wear masks and keep social distance to prevent Covid-19 infection, I will, too. If my co-workers go to work in jeans, I probably will, too. If my peers have been persuaded that voting by mail is bound to have illegitimate results I, too, am going to argue against it. If my buddies watch NHL hockey on TV, I’m not likely to switch to watching Korean soccer.

All of those behaviours are a kind of optical illusion. The ideas and practises are never completely right or wrong, but we all tend to think we are absolutely right and the opposing person is totally wrong. We are not inclined to behave in ways that are contrary to the norms that we see around us because being accepted is more important than trying out an experiment with an alternative viewpoint. It is a huge risk even to say that the person with the contrary perception may be partly right.

That doesn’t mean that we are in lockstep with our friends all of the time, but it does mean that it is really difficult for any of us to step outside of the understandings of our social group. We are more likely to ban discussions of politics and religion at the dinner table than we are to entertain alternative viewpoints.

From now on I am going to try to remind myself that people whose views I disagree with are suffering from an optical illusion, and so am I. On the rare occasion when I meet someone with a different viewpoint, I am going to ask how they came to that understanding. That is more likely to be helpful than presenting an argument that will be rejected because they will think I am clearly suffering from delusions.


  1. This reminds me of a survey I was asked to participate in when I was an undergraduate. It was not an anonymous survey. The question was “your thoughts on the death penalty”. When I did, my full explanation was immediately met with disapproval. Clearly, they wanted everyone to give one particular answer, which is why the survey was done face to face.

    • Ah … we have a fan! A woman after my own heart!
      However, this clip- in fact the entire film- is a wonderful window through which to view the human condition.
      I smile when I consider how Malcolm Muggeridge scathingly labeled it ”10th rate” and here we are, 40 years on still laughing at it!

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