Unpacking Reader Bias

implicit bias

The Internet is bursting at the seams with biased information. Most people treat it like it’s not. 

The tendency is to pick and choose what to read, preferring certain sites and authors and avoiding others. Occasionally, a headline or an article is upsetting, but for the most part, people have no problem digesting what they consume. 

Increasing polarization and multiplicity of views are both indicators of online bias. Bias remains an important and troubling topic for educators, and a hard one to teach. Parents are known to push back if subject matter revered at home is challenged in the classroom. Ironically, there is so much biased material available yet to use it invites trouble.

I’ve often addressed bias in issues of Full Circle, MicroModules and Tutorial Search Challenges. The goal has always been to  help students figure out for themselves if what they read online is trustworthy and true, verses inaccurate and slanted, or worse, malignant information masquerading as benign. 

Plenty of topics have been kept at arm's length: politics, religion, culture, climate, sexuality, even personal health. Like most educators, Information Fluency doesn’t want to get caught up teaching ideology, however, teaching bias detection apart from ideology can be tricky. So the tendency is to shy away from it.

The position our company has consistently taken is not to believe everything in print without challenging it first. There are plenty of ways to fact check accuracy by comparing multiple sources, evaluating the pedigree of sources (biographical information about authors and publishers) and looking for signs of bias in choice of words. Our site has considerable resources to this end. But so far we’ve missed the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Implicit and Explicit Bias

Surprisingly, there’s an aspect of bias we haven’t addressed: reader bias. A reader’s personal assumptions and beliefs is potentially a bigger problem if undetected. Individuals can sense explicit (negative) forms of bias because it is disagreeable. On the other hand, they may completely overlook implicit (or positive) bias--beliefs that coincide with personal views of right or wrong. As a result, agreeable information is seldom challenged or scrutinized. Think about it: when is the last time you fact checked something you agreed with? 

Speaking personally, I prefer progressive perspectives when it comes to most issues. I’m not saying my views  are objectively and universally the only justifiable way to see things. I recognize it’s a personal choice that makes sense for me. As a result, when I read right-leaning views on topics such as black lives matter, climate change and abortion I see red flags associated with explicit bias. Things come across as disagreeable. 

On the other hand, when I read the same subject matter by left-leaning authors, there are fewer red flags, if any at all.  I do not find what I am reading disagreeable. I like it. I don’t bother to fact check it. This is the downside of implicit bias. I don’t detect bias because I’m biased in favor of it. I’m much less likely to scrutinize information that aligns with my beliefs.

The older we get the more our personal views are reinforced by the things we find agreeable or not. Where this becomes problematic is never having to defend the things we think are true.    

Defending belief

One way to avoid being swallowed by our own belief system is regularly to take stock of what we hold to be true. Think of this as building and articulating a personal position as in a credo or constitution: I believe. If I read an article about climate change, rather than just accepting what the author says (if I agree) or reacting negatively to what the author says (if I disagree), ask these questions instead:

What do I hold to be true about this situation?
  • What evidence supports its truth?
  • What evidence opposes its truth?
How committed am I to this position?
  • What if it turns out I’m right? What should I do about it?
  • What if it turns out I’m wrong? What should I do about it?

By reflecting on these questions, individuals may discover unexamined assumptions, or that they have assumed the views of significant others in their lives. Being able to express what one believes is a huge step in being able to examine and defend one’s beliefs. This doesn’t need to be complicated or require a lot of effort. For example, regarding climate change, what three things would you state as personal beliefs you can defend?

Give yourself permission to admit confusion or harbor doubts. Working things out takes time. This is the point at which learning can occur: admitting we don’t know enough or stating questions we have. This also doesn’t need to be complicated. Simply ask, what questions do I have about ___ (e.g., climate change)? 

Some issues take priority. Not everything is equally important: we may be willing to die for some things but not others. It’s good to be aware of these. We can still take positions, but is this an issue that requires acting on it? 

  • To what extent am I willing to defend or act on my beliefs?
  • Am I sure this belief can be defended?
  • What might the cost be to act on my belief?

By developing a personal credo or constitution, one has an opportunity to read information differently and see how positive and negative bias plays a role in shaping individual points of view. One way to achieve this with students is examined in Curriculum Matters

Becoming more aware of implicit bias

  • Admit your own biases (beliefs). Name them. Know what they are.
  • Leave room for doubt. Otherwise, it’s hard to remain skeptical. Skepticism sharpens belief. A weak belief seeks to avoid challenges. A strong belief takes them on.
  • Read to be challenged. Enlarge the scope of what you read, including positions that don’t agree with your own.  A resilient credo grows stronger when it has to be defended.
  • Don’t read merely to bolster your own point of view. There is no challenge in that.
  • As creatures of bias, there is no such thing as reading without bias; but there can be reading that is aware of implicit and explicit bias.

Author: Carl Heine, Ph.D.

Curriculum Matters: Creating a Personal Credo

Articulating personal bias in a Language Arts assignment. Go

ActionZone: Is this biased and how?

See if you can correctly identify bias in articles about the Amazon rainforest Go

Assessment: Implicit Bias

Take a survey on a selected topic and reflect on whether this is a good way to measure implicit bias Go

Fall 2021 Fullcircle Directory