Noticing and Naming Our Inherent Biases 

The following is an excerpt from “As Good As Gold? Why We Focus on the Wrong Drivers in Education,” the first in the new series of  Gold Papers  by John Hattie and Arran Hamilton. Read earlier excerpts, “The Limits of Lesson Observation and “The Limits of Assessment. 


During the last forty years, a growing database of cognitive biases or glitches in our human operating system have been catalogued and confirmed through laboratory experiments and psychometric testing. 

The research suggests that biases afflict all of us, unless we have been trained to ward against them. To date, behavioral economists have recorded more than eighty cognitive biases. In the table below, we summarize some of the inherent biases that, if left unchecked, can result in us stampeding to educational toys that look like wondrous glittering gold but that tarnish very quickly. These biases or negative mind hacks are significant hurdles to educators relentlessly reviewing and testing their assumptions about the impact that they are having on learning in the classroom and in selecting the right things in which to invest.  

For educators to overcome these cognitive biases and fallacies, they need to further develop their skills of logic and rationality without losing their passion for teaching. Educators need not act like desperate stampeders. This requires the development of mindframes that enable educators to have an unrelenting focus on impact and to continually ask themselves whether they are having the greatest impact that they could and how do they really know? 

In the table below, we’ve presented just a sample of the most common cognitive biases affecting education. Get the full list of cognitive biases in our Gold Paper, “As Good as Gold? Why We Focus on the Wrong Drivers in Education.” 

Our Inherent Biases 

Cognitive Bias Category Description References
Authority Bias The tendency to attribute greater weight and accuracy to the opinions of an authority figure—irrespective of whether this is deserved—and to be influenced by it.  

EDUCATION: Don’t be swayed by famous titled gurus. Carefully unpack and test all of their assumptions, especially if they are making claims outside their area of expertise. Be particularly suspicious of anyone who writes and publishes a position paper! 

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378. 
Confirmation Bias

Post-Purchase Rationalization

Choice-Support Bias

The tendency to collect and interpret information in a way that conforms with rather than opposes our existing beliefs. When information is presented that contradicts current beliefs, this can transition into Belief Perseverance (i.e., where individuals hold beliefs that are utterly at odds with the data).  

EDUCATION: We tend to select education approaches, products, and services that accord with our worldview and we will often continue to do so, even when convincing evidence is presented that our worldview may be distorted. Be prepared to go against the grain and to question sacred assumptions. 

Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175–220. 
Observer Expectancy Effect  

Observer Effect  

Hawthorne Effect  

Placebo Effect 

The tendency for any intervention, even a sugar pill, to result in improved outcomes—mainly because everyone involved thinks the intervention will work and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

EDUCATION: If educational “sugar pills” can generate positive effect sizes, then well-crafted education “medicines” should generate a double whammy of effect plus placebo turbo boost—so opt for the latter. 

Sackett, D. L. (1979). Bias in analytic research. Journal of Chronic Diseases, 32(1–2), 51–63. 
Ostrich Effect The tendency to avoid monitoring information that might give psychological discomfort. Originally observed in contexts where financial investors refrained from monitoring their portfolios during downturns.  

EDUCATION: The importance of collecting robust and regular data from a range of sources about the implementation of new interventions and analyzing this ruthlessly. Collect evidence to know thy impact. 

Galai, D., & Sade, O. (2006). The “Ostrich Effect” and the relationship between the liquidity and the yields of financial assets. Journal of Business, 79(5), 2741–2759. 
Invented Here vs. Not Invented Here The tendency to avoid using a tried-and-tested product because it was invented elsewhere— typically claiming “but we are different here.”  

EDUCATION: Be open to using and adapting existing ideas. Avoid reinventing the educational wheel— unless you work in terrain where wheels are useless (you probably don’t). 

Piezunka, H., & Dahlander, L. (2014). Distant search, narrow attention: How crowding alters organizations’ filtering of suggestions in crowdsourcing. Academy of Management Journal, 58, 856–880. 
IKEA Effect The tendency to have greater buy-in to a solution where the end user is directly involved in building or localizing the product—like assembling an IKEA bookcase.  

EDUCATION: Make the effort to localize and adapt tested solutions. This will generate greater emotional buy-in than standardized deployment. 

Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2011). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 453–460. 
Bandwagon Effect

Illusory Truth Effect

Mere Exposure Effect

The tendency to believe that something works because a large number of other people believe it works.  

EDUCATION: It might work and it might not. Test all claims carefully and don’t blindly join the bandwagon to keep up with the Joneses. 

Mehrabian, A. (1998). Effects of poll reports on voter preferences. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(23), 2119–2130. 

 

 


To read more, please see the Gold Papers on VisibleLearningplus.com. 

Written by

Dr. John Hattie has been Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, since March 2011. He was previously Professor of Education at the University of Auckland. His research interests are based on applying measurement models to education problems. He is president of the International Test Commission, served as advisor to various Ministers, chaired the NZ performance based research fund, and in the last Queens Birthday awards was made “Order of Merit for New Zealand” for services to education. He is a cricket umpire and coach, enjoys being a Dad to his young men, besotted with his dogs, and moved with his wife as she attained a promotion to Melbourne. Learn more about his research at www.corwin.com/visiblelearning, and view his Corwin titles here. Dr. Arran Hamilton is Group Director of Strategy at Cognition Education. His early career included teaching and research at Warwick University and a stint in adult and community education. Arran transitioned into educational consultancy more than 15 years ago and has held senior positions at Cambridge Assessment, Nord Anglia Education, Education Development Trust (formerly CfBT) and the British Council. Much of this work was international and focused on supporting Ministries of Education and corporate funders to improve learner outcomes.

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