Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsANDREA MARSHALL: Working with students all the time, it's one of the challenges, I think, they've always faced with their supervisors is how do you help all novice researchers deal with their own biases as they go into research. And so one of the things that we do, particularly in qualitative research, is make sure that we do very detailed journaling about what our own beliefs and perceptions are before we start. So that we can go back to that and understand where we were at the beginning and try and work out whether any of that's influencing how we might collect or analyse the data.

Skip to 0 minutes and 39 secondsBRIGID GILLESPIE: Cognitive bias is like a distortion in the way that we perhaps see our findings or want to see our findings, depending on our lens. As a researcher, it's very important to build in strategies within your methodology that eliminate the possibility of bias and to have a good audit trail. So it's about doing robust research, whether it be qualitative or quantitative, and building that audit trail so that people are confident that your results are unbiased.

Skip to 1 minute and 15 secondsVANETTE MCLENNAN: I guess the various types of biases are resolved through that process of team involvement. So, if you have a team working on something together and checking for accuracy along the way, making sure there's objectivity applied by the team, then I think, you have a far greater chance of ruling out those issues along, the way right from design, through to analysis phase, and dissemination.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 secondsELIZABETH KENDALL: I think for researchers, bias is a huge challenge because our role is to make sure that everything we're doing is defensible, and justified, and is a really accurate interpretation of what's out there-- that is, if there is such a thing as a real truth that's out there. And I think that's why bias is so important because when we as researchers, we bring a different way of looking at things all the time. So I could look at a set of data and I could conclude different things from the person next to me would conclude. So we have to always be conscious of what impact our biases have on our interpretations.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 secondsBut it even goes before that, earlier than that, because my choice of research questions, my choice of research that I'm going to do, and the way I'm going to do it comes from my own opinion. So there's really no such thing as completely unbiased research. There's always some sort of flavour, or perception, or perspective that's influencing the way we do our research and the way we make conclusions from that data.

The power of prejudice and predisposition

How do our subconscious biases have the potential to influence our research efforts?

When it comes to evidence, the facts are the facts. Right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Raw data on its own is not helpful for making decisions or solving problems. As mentioned in the previous step, the data needs to be collated and then interpreted. Only once the analysis has occurred can the information hold real meaning and be used as research evidence. This leads us to ask: who has designed the research project, collected the data and then interpreted the results? What were their underlying beliefs, intentions and motivations? How does this subconsciously influence their research? We must consider the ‘human element’ when critiquing research evidence. In other words, the potential for cognitive bias.

Problems inherent within the human analyst

Each of us has different opinions, values and interests. Our education, culture, personal experiences and upbringing all contribute to shaping our belief systems. These beliefs underlie our predispositions and sometimes serve as ‘blinkers’, preventing us from seeing all sides of a problem or situation. In it’s simplest form, this is what the term ‘cognitive bias’ refers to.

The problem with cognitive bias is the stealth factor. We all like to think we’re completely rational, logical and objective. The reality is that our biases run deep. They’re instinctive and ingrained, so be careful.

What are some examples of cognitive bias?

There are a multitude of cognitive biases at play in our lives, every day. Review this codex to appreciate just how many have been identified.

Have you been aware of the following biases in your own life?

  • stereotyping
  • selective perception or memory
  • prejudice

Left unchecked, our predispositions have enormous potential to cloud judgement and distort thinking. These biases can inadvertently lead to irrational thought processes, where decisions are made on faulty reasoning and emotion, rather than sound decision making. In a research world, where reliable and valid evidence is king, we must consider to what extent human cognitive bias may have influenced research design and interpretation.

Cognitive bias in collecting data

How could an individual’s belief system subconsciously impact on their research? Consider the following:

  • Which questions were selected to be included in a survey and which were omitted?
  • How were the questions framed during an interview or focus group? Were the participants inadvertently asked leading questions?
  • Who was invited to participate in a focus group or experiment and who was perhaps unintentionally excluded?

Cognitive bias in interpreting evidence

Cognitive bias impacts on rationality and judgement. Unchecked bias may lead to the researcher selectively searching for data that will prove their research idea. This may mean they ignore some sources. When this occurs the research evidence won’t be based on the complete picture, and the integrity of the research results are compromised.

Remember, the problem with cognitive bias is that it is so deeply ingrained within each of us, it can be hard to identify. So what can you do about it?

  • Avoid making assumptions and continue to challenge your thought processes.
  • Where possible, consult with a wide variety of people during your research process.
  • Work with a mentor.
  • Become familiar with the different types of cognitive bias, to improve your chances of recognising them when they arise.
  • Reflect on each step of your research project and imagine seeing it through the eyes of someone from a different culture, age group or perspective.

While it is impossible to completely remove cognitive bias, you can minimise its effect. Commitment to ongoing personal reflection and mindfulness will serve you well in your research.

Your task

Watch the video to learn more about cognitive bias from our research experts.

Next, visit Project Implicit and explore the range of free online tests that may help reveal some of your own biases.

Select the GO button for ‘Social Attitudes’ and explore this test first. Then share your thoughts and insights in the comments section. What did you learn about yourself?

Note: The link will take you outside the site, so remember to use the back button to return to the course when you have completed a test.

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This video is from the free online course:

Why Research Matters

Deakin University