Social Sciences

Social Cognitive Bias, Privilege and Flaws in Moral Reasoning

“Prejudice squints when it looks and lies when it talks.”

~ Laure Junot

In 1913, a British philosopher named Earnest Belfort Bax published his book The Fraud of Feminism. In it, he presented arguments against everything from women’s suffrage to equal opportunity in the workplace. Despite the efforts of Bax and the majority of the men in power who were against laws permitting women be counted as equals in civil society, British women won equal voting rights in 1928, decades after slavery was outlawed in the United States.  Women everywhere began to be recognized as worthy of performing wage work in areas that were traditionally considered male territory. Few authors have been more wrong about the direction of history than Bax was. Most sane people today could easily dismiss his anti-woman views. It should, however, give us freethinkers food for thought that Bax was someone who rejected all organized religion and thought of himself as a Rationalist.

Almost a 100 years after Bax’s publication, “Men’s Rights” advocates are still making much the same arguments against gender equality, albeit with decades of data and scientific research in psychology, cognitive science and evolutionary biology from which to cherry pick. Indeed, blogs (1, 2, 3) across the manosphere trumpet Bax as one of the founders of the “men’s rights” movement, proudly proclaiming the book as the initiation of a push back against feminists who are out to deprive men of their rights!

The steady march of progress towards humanism and equal rights has been made harder because of a certain type of irrational thinking that permeates social groups of all kinds, leading groups of people to ignore, justify and dismiss privileges that they enjoy over other groups. Why do we make these errors in reason and how do they affect our beliefs? How can we avoid making them? If we could find answers to these questions, we’d have, at the very least, a better and more compassionate understanding of social issues, from a less biased perspective.

What Causes These Errors?

Before the 1970s the dominant models in social psychology and economics were premised on the belief that people’s decision making processes are essentially rational. A series of experiments brought into question this assumption that had been part of the fundamental framework of behavioral studies, until in 1972 Kahneman and Tversky introduced the idea that the brain uses short-cuts- heuristics- to get around the problem of having to quickly process large quantities of information. These heuristics could, it turns out, bias our decisions in certain situations, leading to inaccuracies in judgement. Thus was born the idea of cognitive bias.

Over the years cognitive scientists, social psychologists and behavioural economists have accumulated experimental evidence that people are subject to several distinct cognitive biases. Besides being errors in heuristic processing, biases are influenced by social dynamics. These biases influence major decisions that we make as individuals and in groups, and have a significant effect on our social, political and economic spheres.

Social Bias

Culture influences everything that a person does, whether they are aware of it or not.”

~ Conrad Phillip Kottak

Experimental work done by Henri Tajfel in the 1960s gave behavioral psychologists unprecedented insight into the phenomenon of prejudice. Tajfel demonstrated that categorization can act as a heuristic that the brain uses indiscriminately, regardless of rational reasons. For example, if a group of people are arbitrarily divided into two, each individual behaves as though the other members of his/her group are more similar to each other than to the members of the other group. This effect applies even when making judgements about similar inanimate objects, when the rational mind knows there really is no difference between the objects in both groups.

In interactions between groups of people, the information relating to various observable events is parsed differently in different observers depending on which group they belong to. The misunderstanding and disagreement between those involved in such everyday conflicts are the result of predictable errors in belief formation, reinforcement and justification. This leads us to the somewhat startling conclusion that at least some of the causes of prejudice are related to universal cognitive processes, and that it is not just certain personality types that are prone to prejudice. We are all susceptible to the cognitive biases that influence our observations and reasoning when it comes to members of our group versus those in other groups.

Bias is Implicit

In 1998 a team of researchers at Harvard launched a program called Project Implicit, an initiative that brought together established ideas in cognitive science and social psychology. Project Implicit was an Implicit Association Test (IAT), designed to pick up on subconscious social biases. The test soon became very popular and was featured widely in the mainstream media, eventually appearing in 2007 in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers.

The IAT is an excellent way of evaluating subconscious prejudice. It turns out that people can have hidden prejudice about members of their own group, without even being aware of it. For example, Black people associating other Black faces (as opposed to White faces) with negative stereotypes and women associating household chores (as opposed to office work) with women in general. People are often surprised to learn about their prejudices. Most of us like to think of ourselves as just, if not also kind-hearted and reasonable. Yet the social cognitive biases that we are all affected by very often mislead members of groups in conflict, making it harder for the groups to find agreement in facts.

A large number of social cognitive biases have thus far been identified, and many of them are universally applicable. For the purposes of this article, here are some biases that have an influence when it comes to creating prejudicial attitudes between groups. The ones listed below are linked to their Wikipedia entries.

Hot/Cold Empathy Gap

Fundamental attribution error

Ultimate attribution error

Belief bias

Attentional bias

Bandwagon effect

Status Quo bias (system justification bias)

Egocentric bias

Just World bias

Intergroup bias

Outgroup homogeneity bias

Forer effect

False consensus effect

Halo effect

Bias and Privilege

Much has already been said about privilege in ideological debates on Facebook and elsewhere. There is no doubt that in some cases the word ‘privilege’ is abused, and freethinkers are right to be wary of such uses of the word. Like when it is invoked to prevent discourse and exploration of the facts, rather than to introduce a clear understanding of existing bias in a specific context. But very often even when privilege is brought up in a legitimate case, there is an unhealthy tendency to dismiss it without  giving it the thought it deserves. In intergroup conflicts, social cognitive bias leads to ignoring privilege, leading to inadequately addressing the issues of justice and rights.

Let’s analyze a few inter-group conflicts to see how cognitive bias is used to justify and dismiss privilege.

1. Race bias: The most studied inter-race relationship is between Black and White Americans. Given the history of these two groups it is quite easy for third parties to see the enormous amount of social, political and economic privilege that the latter holds over the former. In this now famous talk, author Tim Wise presents statistics detailing the deep and lasting effects that White privilege exerts. Yet when Whites and Blacks are asked about it, Whites are far more likely to feel that race is not an issue in America, and that White Americans are not privileged over minority groups. Many of the above mentioned cognitive biases are at work when it comes to race bias. In fact, data suggests that in relation to Whites things have not really gotten much better for Black Americans in America since the 1960s, and in some cases they have gotten worse.

The debate on race in America is a study in cognitive bias. Right from the beginnings of slavery, White colonialists justified the oppression by claiming that it was good for the slaves. It’s what the slaves really wanted, they claimed. It was even described as a mental disease if a slave tried to run away, and the “treatment” was cutting off their big toes. Guess what you can’t do anymore without your big toes?

2. Colour bias: In India and much of the world, even where dark skinned people are the majority, explicit and unapologetic light-skin bias exists. Lighter-skinned people have an advantage when it comes to everything from job opportunities to finding love. This is a privilege actively perpetuated by everyone, including most “victims” of this prejudice. From childhood dark-skinned people are taught they are inferior because of their colour, by both dark and light-skinned people. Evil characters, in mythology and contemporary cultural expression such as cinema, are invariable dark-skinned, in contrast with the light-skinned good ones. Multiple cognitive biases are involved in maintaining the beliefs that light-skin is inherently good, more attractive and a sign of higher intellect, making it more desirable overall. Despite the existence of widespread light-skinned privilege, due to the effects of cognitive bias it is not credited as being a privilege over dark-skinned people. Light-skinned privilege is simply not accounted for when conversations about economic justice and inequality are brought forward in India.

3. Caste bias: This is obviously relevant mostly in the Indian context, but such categorizations are found throughout much of the developing world. Although in the more metropolitan Indian cities explicit caste bias is frowned upon, caste-based prejudice still plays an important role in social organization. In Tamil Nadu, despite decades of strong anti-caste movements, the political and intellectual establishments are dominated by members of the “upper” castes, many of whom are subconsciously driven to favour their own in-groups.

There is a general belief that Brahmins are more intelligent than other Indians- an idea that is held true by many due to the effects of a confluence of cognitive biases. I once had a Brahmin girl try to convince me that Lamarckian evolutionary effects caused by a history of vegetarianism contributed to Brahmins developing more advanced abstract reasoning skills! Similar to Whites in America, “upper caste” members, while thinking of themselves as superior and taking pride in their influence over all major aspects of society, also claim they are the persecuted ones in India! Such propaganda is a cognitive bias-driven tactic to counter observed privilege, leading to an increase in in-group affinities and nepotism that ends in more “upper caste” dominance.

4. Religion bias: This is an easy one for freethinkers to identify. People in different religious groups are extremely biased in their assessment of themselves in comparison to those in other religious groups. Usually this bias is restricted to the religious beliefs, but sometimes people assign characteristics to the believers themselves- characteristics that have little to do with the beliefs. This is also seen with some non-believers.

Religion tends to be a very polarizing phenomenon, and therefore when religious categories are involved, cognitive biases such as intergroup bias and out-group homogeneity bias play an increased role. Different biases are involved depending on the situation. When one religious group is privileged over others in a particular population, there is powerful motivation to maintain the status quo. Some members belonging to religious majorities feel a strong urge to assert themselves in their culture, diminishing the cultural contributions of the minority religions. Worst of all is the exertion of religious privilege over non-believers.

In the US, every holiday season there is a renewed cry from the religious proclaiming that America is a Christian nation, rather oblivious to that nation’s explicitly secular constitutional history. Similar attitudes from India’s Hindus might seem less misguided, until you consider that Hinduism itself was the product of several cognitive biases acting on several groups of believers, under the influence of external groups that posed a threat to them all. In the Islamic world, meaning any country with a significant Islamic majority, Muslim privilege is often blatantly paraded as divine law. Religions, it turns out, have evolved mechanisms within scripture and in traditional practice to hijack our social cognitive biases, pitting humans against each other in order for the beliefs to effectively perpetuate themselves.

5. Gender bias: Unlike most of the other issues, gender roles have been culturally reinforced in all societies for as long as humans have existed. Sociologists describe modern human societies as patriarchal, although a few matriarchal societies have existed in hunter-gatherer cultures. The closest to matriarchy today is what are known as matrifocal cultures, where women have a central position in the family.

Male privilege that comes hand in hand with patriarchy is something that men everywhere are trained to internalize into their worldviews and consider the norm. It is a subject that much has been written about, while very little is part of the cultural narrative. Throughout history men have written and talked about justice and equality while dismissing the subjugation of half the population, thanks to cognitive bias. Of course, today the most patriarchal societies are often also the most religious ones. Religious authority is a powerful tool to control women’s minds and bodies. As religious influence over society fades, new reasons are being invented, often usurping scientific ideas and twisting them into tenuous propositions, for the continued perpetuation of a patriarchal system that privileges men on many fronts. Divine allotment of gender roles is supplanted with seemingly naturalistic reasons that justify the existing patriarchy.

Even in the face of powerful structures of domination, it remains possible for each of us, especially those of us who are members of oppressed and/or exploited groups as well as those radical visionaries who may have race, class, and sex privilege, to define and determine alternative standards, to decide on the nature and extent of compromise.”

~ bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins)

Privilege Goes Both Ways.. Or Does It?

One of the common criticisms of the idea that men are privileged in society is that women also have privileges that we feminists ignore. To some extent it is true that women have certain privileges, and cognitive bias is at work when the non-existent caricature feminist denies that they do. But this is the privilege of the fish in the bowl, being in charge of the few cubic inches of its territory, while the boy who keeps the bowl by his window has the “responsibility” of providing for the fish, dealing with the “important” issues that concern fishkind. In essence, this argument being used to justify male privilege is simply a function of the cognitive bias that leads men to argue for extending the status quo of our patriarchal society.

The same criticism is also often made along racial lines in America, claiming that Blacks get to be explicitly racist because of their history of subjugation, a double-standard that privileges them over Whites today. Again, this line of reasoning is just more evidence of the cognitive biases that allow Whites to ignore the lasting systemic effects of the power they have historically exerted over American society, and the considerably more significant and real consequences of the privilege they thereby hold today.

What Can We Do As Freethinkers?

The study of how social cognitive biases contribute to justification of privilege can be similarly extended to many other issues. For example, sexual orientation, wealth, education etc are all factors that, in modern society, confer privilege to one group of people over others.

There certainly are both positive as well as normative elements involved in such matters, and we know that on a common biological level the foundations of our value systems are hard-wired. However, it is clear that our values themselves are shaped by who we are in society, in relation to others in the culture we are conditioned by. Our judgements on such issues as privilege are biased by default, trapped as we are within our social contexts.

Just as we freethinkers enthusiastically study logical fallacies to aid in argumentation and advocacy of our beliefs, and as we vociferously advocate for empirical evaluation of factual propositions, the analysis of cognitive biases and their effects should become part of the overall agenda. In the case of social issues, scrutiny of how our biases affect us can be extremely useful towards creating a society where the vestiges of irrational prejudice have as small an effect as possible on the lives of all humans. In the long run, such developments will no doubt become the focus of the freethought movement, as religious influence over culture gives way to a society built on secular values and humanistic ethics.


Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.

Henri Tajfel, Cognitive aspects of Prejudice.

About the author

Ajita Kamal


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