The Psychology of Bias– Sarah Frank

Updated: Sep 7

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, he’s just a guy jogging on your street...so why would this likely make you nervous?


Allow me to introduce you to the concept of an alief. Aliefs are 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 don’t even have to really believe an alief is true in order for it to affect your actions. Aliefs, as Tamar Gendler describes them, are “associative, automatic, and arrational”. They have three major associated components: they involve the representation of an object/concept, experiencing an emotional state, and frequently lead to actions, or “motor routines.”.

Gendler provides the example of a Skywalk where you walk out onto glass high up. The

adrenaline rush and the souvenirs with the words “I did it” tell you that it was a brave or bold

thing to do. As Gendler argues, though, you wouldn’t have stepped onto the Skywalk if you

actually thought there was any danger. On one hand, you must believe it’s safe to step onto the Skywalk or you wouldn’t have even considered it. The hesitation and fear you might feel, though, is caused by your alief— even if you know it’s not the case.


In this scenario and in other scenarios, 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 this is not always the case. An alief can influence these

actions.


Take, for instance, Paul Rozin’s experiment. In the experiment, participants pour sugar

into two vials, one of which was previously labeled as holding poison, but is obviously clean. 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. Rozin’s experiments showed that people have biases that they know aren’t the case but are still impacted by.


Another example of an alief would be if you know your phone is in your pocket but reach

to check anyway. You believe it’s there but an alief tells you to check, even though you know

there’s no real reason to be worried. 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 (definitely recommend), 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 also brownies. Aliefs are present in everyday life: things you know aren’t true but act on anyway.


Noticing the difference between aliefs and beliefs, between the true and untrue, is the first step to understanding your own actions. Beyond your own actions, though, keeping aliefs in mind can help you understand other people’s actions, especially in a day and age where implicit bias is more rampant than ever.


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