Bias Is Built Into Our Brains. But There’s Still Hope.

Aline Holzwarth
5 min readJan 25, 2021
We sort social groups into categories by our very nature. GETTY

Human beings are simplifiers. We are cognitive misers, exerting the least amount of mental effort that we can in making decisions. We rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to take the fastest route from A to B. And we are categorizers.

The tendency to conceive of the world around us in categories is a strategy that is often adaptive, but has at least one unfortunate byproduct: the bias that results from associations we make with different categories. And while there is no getting rid of bias, we can design systems to correct for these errors.

Categorizing is critical to survival. It enables you to efficiently move through the world, managing the stream of stimuli that you encounter from millisecond to millisecond. It allows you to be comfortable handing a letter to the mail carrier and be assured that the supermarket clerk will give back your credit card after you’ve paid for your groceries.

All humans are predisposed to sort the world around them into categories. You quickly assign the empty, unlit alley as “risky” and the bustling, well-lit sidewalk as “likely safe.” You see a moldy apple and have no trouble labeling it “not good to eat.”

Categorizing can lead to bias

The innate tendency to categorize is essential for managing our lives, but grouping people into categories and making decisions based on those categories can bring with it pernicious side effects, particularly for systemically disadvantaged social groups. As behavioral scientist Jennifer L. Eberhardt puts it, “the very things that help us to see the world can also blind us to it.”

Research shows that these side effects are pervasive, and particularly pronounced in discrimination against people of color. For example, researchers who submit identical resumes to job ads receive more interview offers when the candidate has a white-sounding name than a Black-sounding name like “Lakisha” or “Jamal.” When a Black person is shown shoving a white person, 75% of study participants consider the action violent whereas only 17% rate the same shove as violent when the races are reversed.

The stakes of racial bias are critically high when police and guns are involved. When faced with an ambiguous situation…

Aline Holzwarth

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design.