Hard Wired Humans and Empathy Blockers


As a brainy social animal, humans spend time thinking about what others are thinking and doing. We end up judging people. But we are biased in doing so. We judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves because we apply different criteria. We judge ourselves on our (internal) thoughts and motives but we judge others on their (external) behaviour. This creates a barrier to empathising with and understanding others. It creates misunderstandings. A practical consequence of this quirk of human nature is to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Scientists explore this topic under the heading of “bias blind spot”. We display bias in our decisions yet don’t acknowledge our biases.  We spot bias more readily in others than in ourselves. The origin of being blind to bias is that we tend to be unaware that we assess ourselves by our thoughts, motives and feelings yet we assess others on their behaviours and of course we rarely have access to their inner thoughts. 

Judging Self on Motives
Emily Pronin from Princeton University specialises in researching bias blind spots. She and a colleague conducted a number of studies. In the first study 247 undergraduates responded to questions about common biases (such as the “self-serving” bias where people tend to take credit for success but deny responsibility for failure). After reading one of the descriptions of bias, participants were asked a series of questions either about themselves or about “the average student”. They were asked either the extent to which they themselves show the effect of the tendency and they were asked how much they or others used two different strategies for arriving at this assessment (either the strategy of getting inside one’s own head/others’ heads or the way people in general tend to behave). 

Participants showed a bias blind spot and a different basis of assessment on self versus others: 
1. Participants claimed to be far less susceptible to the relevant biases than their peers (5.05 vs. 6.83 on a 10-point scale where 1 = not at all, 5 = somewhat and 9 = strongly). 
2. Those who were in the group assessing their own bias reported using thoughts and motives more than human behaviour (5.17 vs. 3.91).
3. Those who were in the group assessing their peers’ bias reported considering thoughts and motives less than behaviour (3.48 vs. 6.10).  

Different Standards for Self Versus Others
In a second study the researchers explored how valuable the different sources of information would be for making self-assessments of bias. A total of 83 students completed a questionnaire that began with a description of the self-serving bias. They were asked to consider either themselves or an average student (depending on the experimental condition).  The results showed that we apply a different standard when considering ourselves versus others:
1. Getting inside their head was a more valuable strategy than considering their beliefs about behaviour for arriving at their own self-assessment of bias (6.50 vs. 5.05)
2. By contrast, when contemplating the average student assessing his or her own bias, they tended to believe that it would be less useful for that person to try to get inside his/her own head than for that person to look to how other people in general behave (5.34 vs. 6.02).

As the researchers observed, “participants made very different claims about what information they versus their peers should use for assessing personal bias”. Indeed, there is a double impact.  Participants “not only weighted (internal) information more in the case of self than others, but they concurrently weighted behavioural information more in the case of others than self. Our participants even seemed to claim that such ‘behavioural disregard’ was appropriate for judging themselves, but not others.”

Awareness of Bias Blind Spot Helps
Can an awareness of the bias blind spot overcome our tendency to do so? The good news is “yes”. In a further experiment Pronin and her colleague had 78 students participate in one of two groups. One group was the control group. Both groups were given a real article from Nature magazine to read and respond to. And those in the experimental group were also given a fake article that appeared to be from Science. This alleged article was titled “Unaware of Our Unawareness” and referenced a wide variety of studies concerning nonconscious influences on attitudes and behaviour. 

Participants in both groups were asked to rate their own susceptibility to different biases. As expected, participants in the control group showed a bias blind spot (5.29 on a new scale where 6 = same as the average student). But those in the experimental group who had been educated about nonconscious processes did not show a blind spot (5.88 = about the same). “When participants were taught that valuing internal processing is likely to lead one astray in making judgments about influences on self, they ceased claiming that they were less susceptible to bias than their peers.”    

(Source: E. Pronin and M. B. Kugler, “Valuing thoughts, ignoring behaviour: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blond spot” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43 (207) 565-578) 

Being human means we live and work with others. We need to empathise and relate well with others. Yet we have this inherent obstacle in doing so. Suffering a bias blind spot means we judge others on different criteria to how we judge ourselves. We tend to judge ourselves on our motives while others on their behaviour. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

It’s only fair, and more emotionally intelligent, if we apply the same standard to ourselves and others. Because we generally can’t have access to others’ internal processing then we are left with using behaviour as the criteria for judging others and ourselves. We should judge ourselves on our behaviour not our intentions and when we find ourselves judging others we should give them the benefit of the doubt. 


Andrew O’Keeffe



Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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