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Thinking Critically About Information: Beware of Bias

Thinking Critically About Information: Beware of Bias

Last Updated: April 01, 2021

This is Part 2 of the Critical Thinking Lessons for Kids.

Now that you know how to collect trustworthy information, the next thing to be aware of are thinking errors that we all make (including adults). One error is known as a bias. You may have heard the word “bias” (pronounced BY-US).  Bias is a tendency to have an opinion where you are in favor of or against a certain thing, a person, or group compared with another point of view. 

Bias: Can you accept new information?

When we find new information that agrees with what we want, it’s easy to accept it. This is because the new information supports what we already believe. The opposite is also true; if we come across new information that says that what we believe is wrong, it can be hard to accept. 

Once we’ve made a decision about something it is very difficult to think of other possibilities. We are more likely to come up with excuses for not believing new information, instead of accepting it and changing our minds. This is also known as a bias. It doesn’t matter who we are, as humans we all have difficulties with new information that challenges our beliefs.

For example, think of 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? It was probably very difficult. Often we will base our decisions on how we feel about something, not logic or facts. All humans tend to follow their ‘gut-feeling’ to make sense of the world they live in.

Bias is a tendency to come out in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. There are many different types of biases. The bias we will look at is when you only listen to and trust information that goes along with your beliefs. Here is an example:

Let’s imagine that you love apples because they are good for you. Your friend on the other hand, hates apples and thinks apples aren’t good to eat. You want to convince your friend that apples are good, so you do a Google Search:

  • Apples are healthy
  • Apples and their benefits
  • Can eating apples make you live longer?

A bunch of studies and articles come up, and they all say that apples are good for the body! You then ask your friends who also enjoy apples about what they think, and they all agree with you too! You have now proved to your friend that apples are good to eat. Or have you?

This scenario might sound familiar to you. This exact pattern happens all the time, even with adults. But there are two major problems here, and both are examples of bias.

1 - You only searched for information that agreed with you.

You can’t prove that you’re right if you only look for information that agrees with you. This is especially true on the internet. For example, if you only search for positive things about apples you’ll only find results that show positive things about apples.

What you want to do is also search for things such as:

  • Are apples dangerous or poisonous?
  • Are apples unhealthy?
  • Can you eat too many apples?

Or try to stay neutral, such as

  • What are the health effects of apples?

Why do this? Because if there are no trustworthy articles that show that apples are bad for you (and you’re looking for them), maybe you are right! Or maybe it is more complicated (perhaps you should only eat so many apples, or maybe avoid eating the skins, or only if it’s cooked - these are all made up examples though, so don’t consider them true!). You would never find out if you have never searched for terms that disagree with you - so remember to do both.

2 - You only asked friends that agreed with you.

This is also a common mistake. While it’s great to include other people’s opinions and thoughts, it’s not helpful if all you do is talk to people that agree with you. It’s another form of bias. Try to find people who disagree with you, and see what they have to say. You might learn something!

Another thing to keep in mind is that knowledge is not a fight between two ideas. Instead of thinking of it as “I am right and you are wrong”, consider thinking about it as a collaborative task. Collaborative (pronounced KE LAB ER A DIV) means to work together with others on something that has a special purpose. Instead of thinking of it as "I am right and you are wrong", consider collaborating with others to learn the reasons for different points of views. If people are collaborating well, ideas and beliefs can be shared. You may come up with a new idea that is even better! 

Finally, the most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to be wrong. Being wrong is part of how we all learn.