Awareness of Bias Blind Spots Is the First Step to Mutual Understanding

A toilet with a water fountain, installed next to an ordinary water fountain

When driving a car and changing lanes, if you rely only on your mirrors and neglect to look around with your eyes, you may be surprised when another car suddenly appears beside you. Even when we think we can see, there are blind spots that we do not notice.

Even our thoughts have blind spots that we are unaware of — as much as we would like to believe ourselves to be paragons of rational judgment. Emotions and preconceptions create biases in our thinking, but we are not aware of these biases. This lack of awareness is called a “bias blind spot.” The trouble is that we can see other people’s biases easily even while overlooking our own.

I used to be skeptical of such technical terms as “bias blind spot” because I would like to believe that I am rational and without any biases. But that was before Takashi Kusumi, a professor of cognitive psychology at Kyoto University, told me about an exhibit at the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art and human perception in San Francisco.

The exhibit is a water fountain built into a toilet. Next to it is an ordinary water fountain. The introduction to the exhibit tells us: “These drinking fountains both dispense perfectly clean, healthy San Francisco tap water. The toilet has never been used. Which fountain do you choose — and why?”

The name of the exhibit is “A Sip of Conflict.”

From a rational point of view, there is no problem at all with drinking from this perfectly clean toilet bowl. However, even though it has never been used, feces and urine usually flow into other fixtures that look just like it. I could not get such an image out of my mind, and just as looking at the picture, I thought, “I don’t want to drink from that.” I had thought I was thinking rationally, but I realized that I had a bias blind spot.

A lack of scientific information about global warming and COVID-19 is said to have created divisions in society. I often hear such complaints as, “Why can’t people understand what is scientifically correct?” However, when I reflect on our aversion to clean water coming out of the toilet faucet, I realize the limitations of “scientific arguments” such as “it’s an unused toilet bowl, so it’s not dirty.”

As for global warming, some people tend to lecture skeptics that almost all scientists agree that global warming is caused by human activities. But especially in the United States, some skeptics believe that global warming is a political statement by the Democrats rather than a scientific argument. So, sometimes scientific argument has no meaning for the skeptics and political bias might exacerbate a division in society.

I suppose it is important to be attentive to each other’s biases and to be aware that we cannot be totally rational ourselves. To achieve mutual understanding, the first step might be to realize that we all can have bias blind spots.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Makoto Mitsui

Mitsui is a senior writer in the Science News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.