Fighting Cognitive Bias in Class (and Life)

If my students develop one skill in my classes, I hope it’s the ability to fight cognitive bias. I spend a lot of time — in various ways — encouraging them to reflect on their thought processes, to identify and challenge their assumptions, and to be open to changing their views. Not that they should or will, but that they might be open to the possibility. The goal is to encourage greater awareness of themselves and, importantly, others. At the very least, if they want to support and promote their views, they should know what their views are and be able to develop a defense of them; to be truly persuasive — but also empathetic human beings — they should recognize and understand different and often contradictory views.

I usually start with blind-spot bias because I’ve learned over time that college students — like many — think that everyone succumbs to bias except themselves! Part of this bias is quite age appropriate; they’re at that point in their lives when they’ve learned a lot of stuff and are independent enough to exercise their knowledge in many new ways. One way they do it is through a bit of self-righteousness. Again, age appropriate. Nevertheless, as I think about how I can best help them prepare to leave the university and embark on the next chapter of their lives, challenging this and other biases seems like a productive idea.

I’ve approached this in different ways over the years and in different classes, meeting with varying degrees of interest from students and impact (measured by the quality of class discussion and written work). One of my challenges is that my students come from at least nine different campuses with different majors and a wide variety of life experiences; reaching all of them where they are is often not possible.

This term I devised a new approach that was fun and yielded some really interesting and compelling responses from students. It included in-class work (turned in at the end of class) and homework (due today in advance of tomorrow’s class). We spent about an hour of a 2.5 hour class session on the in-class portion, and I expect they may spend an hour or so on the home portion.

In Class:

Without introduction to avoid framing, I presented students with a prompt I borrowed from this PBS Learning Media lesson on detecting bias:

“Describe a time you tried to change someone else’s mind, either about a decision they made or their views on an issue. Were you successful? Explain.”

I asked them to avoid political examples if they could and told them that they needn’t be profound; they could be lame!

It can be hard to think of nonpolitical situations, especially without any warning, so I gave them about 20 minutes. I had two examples of my own, one where I’d been unsuccessful and one more (or less) successful, in case I needed to break the ice.

I took a couple volunteers who provided a few details and explained why they thought they were successful or not in convincing the other person. Everyone turned in their descriptions for participation credit at the end of class.

To a person, they were fabulous. Among them were disagreements about music, books, and food; disagreements with parents about curfews, post graduation plans, and responsibilities; disagreements with partners about their relationships; and challenges around religion, sexuality, and other identity. Not only did they think carefully about their lives, but their responses gave me a wonderful window into the obstacles they face. Not surprisingly (to me) they were mostly unsuccessful in their attempts to change the views of others. Notably, though, and despite some frustration at their lack of success, most were quite empathetic, trying very hard to understand the other view, often trying to find common ground, and even acknowledging that their approach might not have been conducive to a thoughtful discussion. And, unsolicited, they had ideas about how they might have done it differently and how they will continue the discussions in the future. [The kids are alright!]

We took a bit of a detour to talk about some short articles I had them read about information processing and why we ALL have biases. Also, I presented them with the cognitive bias cheat sheet found in this article to summarize the challenges ALL human beings have when trying to make sense of a rather chaotic world.

Then I distributed this infographic to help them put the appropriate terminology to their own experiences. There are other lists and graphics, but I like this one because it’s presented in an easily-accessible and visually-pleasing way.

I gave them a few minutes to take a look at it and think about which of the biases might apply to their stories. Most of them hadn’t used the precise psychological language in their descriptions but they were able to pick one or two of those on the list that seemed applicable. Again, I took a couple volunteers and I provided a few of my own insights.


Because it’s hard and time consuming to absorb the infographic adequately — and because I wanted them to continue thinking about bias before our next meeting (and forever, really!) — I had a homework assignment for them too.

For each of three biases on the infographic, provide one example of the bias at work from the news or your own life AND one possible method of overcoming it.

Their responses are due tonight and we’ll discuss at the beginning of class tomorrow.

I’m really looking forward to it. When we can get our students thinking and talking about their lives — and especially their struggles — everyone learns so much about themselves and each other.

Let me know what you think. And if you’ve had different assignments and experiences in class, I’d love to know about them. Please share.