Just World Bias and Inequality

Discussions of inequality are pervaded by the Just World Bias — the tendency for people to  believe that the world is or ought to be ‘just’ and people should get what they deserve. But often equality for some entails inequality for others, like hanging lead weights on ballerinas.

But the serious general problem for overcoming cognitive bias is the cases where the biases come in opposed pairs, with an example being the Just World Bias versus what I’ll call the Perverse World Bias (or Murphy’s bias): ‘If I take my umbrella it’s sure to be fine, but if I don’t, it’s sure to rain,’ or ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ etc.

Many proverbs have a similar problem, as in ‘Look before you leap’ versus ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ Proverb pairs with this property are useless as guides to action, though handy for hindsight.

Opposed pairs of biases have a similar shortcoming — because they cover all the ground, they end up covering none at all, and throw us back on ‘It depends’ which is where we started anyway.

How many opposed pairs of cognitive biases are there?

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  • Fishbane

    How many opposed pairs of cognitive biases are there?

    3. Definitely.

  • 3 pairs… hmmm… and which ones are they?

  • “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone” vs. “Misery loves company.”
    “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” vs. “Cast your bread on the waters, and it will return to you.”
    “Love thine enemy.” vs. “Never do your enemy a small injury.”
    “The devil is in the details.” vs. “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

    So, there must be more than three.

  • foolish consistency

  • I’ll grant that believing that the world is just is a type of bias, if not just plain wrong, but how is believing that the world ought to be just a form of bias? That some people conflate justice with a perverse form of egalitarianism is probably true, but that seems like a mistaken belief about justice. In and of itself, the belief that the world should be just doesn’t strike me as a bias.

  • Jfalk

    My favorite offsetting set of biases is the Gambler’s fallacy, the notion that the law of averages has memory to induce negative correlations, countered by the “hot streak” fallacy, the notion that success breeds success, which induces positive correlation.

  • Carl Shulman


    Those two biases don’t have to offset each other, because gamblers are meta-biased in how they apply them. Gamblers will deploy the Gambler’s fallacy when losing but not the idea of a ‘cold streak,’ and vice versa when winning (with a hot rather than cold streak): their bias is towards adopting justifications for gambling.


  • Douglas Knight

    Carl Shulman:
    What you say sounds right, but the link seems like an odd choice of evidence.

    Anyhow, the main point is that it’s not clear that these are biases; they may be more like proverbs, excuses, so they need opposing pairs for flexibility. Certainly, that’s my impression of the gambler’s falacy (though something like it shows up when one is asked to construct “typical” sequences). But I think “hot streaks” are a real bias.

  • jfalk

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you, Carl, but the same s true of “He who hesitates is lost,” and “Look before you leap.” No one holds both of those proverbs in their head and decides which one wins, they choose the one that justifies the action they want to take — and there just happens to be one for every occasion, as Douglas points out, though I don’t know what you mean, Douglas, by a “real” bias as opposed to the Gambler’s fallacy… what is it? A “fake” bias? I would define a bias as a prediction about some future state of the world that a person in no better informational state (as opposed to decision processing apparatus) can take advantage of. In that sense, the casino demonstrates that both are “real” biases.

  • Douglas Knight

    A bias is a belief. If a proverb influences belief, then it is a bias, but it’s not obvious that the existence of a proverb influences belief, even if someone claims that it does. Hot streak’s and the gambler’s fallacy may be idle chatter that do not reflect the gambler’s thought processes. That is how they might not be biases. I think that’s too extreme: the gambler might stop if he ran out of excuses, so they do affect his beliefs, or at least his actions.

    But Carl Shulman is right that a better model is that he wants to keep gambling. If the proverbs accomplish only that, we need not worry about them. If the leak out and affect his beliefs in other ways, they might be interesting as biases.

  • jfalk

    Well, we’re getting a little off-topic here, but if you think people don’t actually believe the gambler’s fallacy, I think there’s good evidence to the contrary. Kahnemann and Tversky (Judgment Under Uncertainty, 1982) make it a subset of the “local representativeness” belief (at page 7). See also Lindman and Edwards (1961), Journal of Experimental Psychology. Ten minutes in a casino will lead to the same conclusion…. Watch people who write down long strings of roulette results and watch what they do. Note that, contrary to Carl’s hypothesis, people who write down these strings, before they start gambling, would have no reason to bet for or against red on their first bet if there had been a long streak of reds. In fact, I’ve watched them, and their first bet under these circumstances is almost invariably black, which suggests that, if anything, the gambler’s fallacy is somewhat stronger than the “hot hand” fallacy. I have no doubt that people who want to gamble will create rationalizations for their behavior, but those rationalizations, so long as they are predicated on the notion that the odds can be turned in their favor in a purely mechanical game are pretty close to the definition of bias.

  • Most everything in life that we worry about involves tradeoffs, so having opposing proverbs is useful in reminding us of the tradeoffs.

  • Fools Gold

    “…My favorite offsetting set of biases is the Gambler’s fallacy, the notion that the law of averages has memory to induce negative correlations, countered by the “hot streak” fallacy, the notion that success breeds success, which induces positive correlation. …”

    And just as a proverb does not necessarily influence either thought processes or behavior, the cognitive biases of Gambler’s Fallacy or “Hot Streak” exist in someone who is already at the gambling tables, already has a stack of chips, a free drink and a beautiful woman. To the extent that either fallacy pops into the gambler’s mind, its likely to be selectively employed but most probably after the event!

  • Fools Gold: Good point, but mighn’t the preknowledge of these biases prevent one from going to the casino at all, thus overcoming the effects of these biases without actually activating them?