"I know I'm biased, but..."

by [anonymous]3 min read10th May 201121 comments


Modest EpistemologyHeuristics & BiasesConversation (topic)Rationality
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Inspired by: The 5-Second Level, Knowing About Biases Can Hurt People

"I know I'm biased, but..." and its equivalents seem to be relatively common in casual conversation--I've encountered the phrase in classroom discussions, on Internet message boards, and in political arguments. In most cases, "I know I'm biased, but..." is used as a way of feigning humility and deflecting criticism by preemptively responding to accusations of bias. That is, the speaker acknowledges that their argument may be flawed in order to deny their opponent the opportunity point out particular biases. It's a way of signaling to the audience, "Yes, there are errors in this line of reasoning, but I already know that, so you can't accuse me of being biased."

But as we all know by now, it's not enough to just acknowledge biases--you have to actually correct the error before you can move on. Admitting that your argument is based on bias does not absolve you of your error, and it doesn't make your argument any truer.

Therefore, "I know I'm biased, but" is a cached thought that we would be better off without. But how can we get rid of it? Tabooing the phrase "I know I'm biased, but..." is not enough, since your brain will probably end up substituting something similar, such as "I may be wrong, but..." instead of making the appropriate correction. Instead, it is necessary to force your brain to consciously think about the bias instead of instinctively rationalizing the biased argument. This is a skill that takes place on the 5-second level: you have to stop your train of thought mid-sentence and think about the situation more clearly. The following should serve as an anti-pattern for when you notice yourself thinking, "I know I'm biased, but...":

1) Stop. I'm not ready to proceed. If there's a bias in my argument, bulldozing over it is never the correct solution. I need to just cut myself off in mid-sentence and think about this.

2) Identify the bias. What is this bias that my brain is trying to cover up? Does it have a name? Where have I read about it before? What heuristic am I using that is causing the problem? Do I have any emotional attachment to this argument that might cloud my judgment? How would I feel if this argument was wrong? Where is my information coming from? Did I do a thorough job researching this argument?

3) Think about potential solutions. What heuristic should I be using instead of the one I am using? Can I substitute a quantitative analysis or Bayesian update instead of jumping to a particular conclusion? Do I need to do more research to determine if this argument is true? What other sources of evidence can I consult?

4) Re-analyze using a different method. What happens when I use the heuristics I just thought about instead of the ones I originally used? What pieces of evidence really support my argument? What facts would need to be different for it to be false? Can I compare multiple perspectives on this argument?

5) Re-evaluate the argument. Does the argument still look correct? Does approaching the problem with a different method yield the same results? Have I completely explained away the bias?

An abstract explanation isn't always enough, so here is an example:



"...and that's why," Albert concluded, "the iPhone is absolutely terrible!"

"I know I'm biased," Barry replied, "but iPhone is the best smartphone on the market!"

Uh-oh, thought Barry. I said that phrase again. Something's not right here. "Hang on a moment..."

Why would I think that the iPhone is the best smartphone on the market? How would I feel if it wasn't the best phone? Well, I'd be kind of annoyed that I spent all that money to buy one. I'd feel disappointed because the advertisement made it look really awesome, and I've always told everyone that it was worth the price. Am I rationalizing this? Hmm, maybe I am rationalizing and I just don't want to believe that I made a bad purchase.

Ok, so what if it is rationalization? What am I supposed to do now? Didn't I read something on LessWrong about this? This feels like "politics is the mind-killer" territory--I should probably be re-thinking my arguments and checking for bias.

But how should I be evaluating the quality of my iPhone? I guess I should ask myself what features I care about--let's pick three. Well, the most important thing to me is service--I make a lot of calls for work and I don't want any of them to be dropped. I want my phone to be durable, too--I'm pretty clumsy and I drop it from time to time. And the phone bill is important too.

Alright, let's add all of this up: The iPhone is pretty fragile, I've already cracked the screen slightly. And it does drop calls sometimes--there might be a network with better coverage, I'm not sure. And the phone bill--my old phone was definitely a lot cheaper, but it also wasn't a smartphone. I'd have to research other networks' coverage and pricing to be sure.

Wow, I might've been wrong about this. That means I wasted a lot of money. And it also means that the iPhone probably isn't "the best" phone out there. Wait, that's not right--it could be the best, but I don't have the evidence to prove it, so my argument isn't right. I have to gather more evidence.

"Are you still there?" Albert frowned in puzzlement. "You kinda fuzzed out there for a second."

"Nevermind," said Barry. "What I should have said was, the iPhone doesn't really do all of the things I want it to do. Say, where's the electronics store?"



Next time you catch yourself thinking, "I know I'm biased, but...", don't let your brain finish the sentence--stop that train of thought and analyze it!

Edit: Many commenters have suggested that "I know I'm biased, but..." is sometimes used to signal being open to counterarguments. As a result, it is best to double-check what you (or your discussion partners) are really signaling so that you can respond appropriately.


21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:55 AM
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In most cases, "I know I'm biased, but..." is used as a way of feigning humility and deflecting criticism by preemptively responding to accusations of bias.

It can be a useful signal that you're open to counterarguments and won't get all prissy and offended if someone contradicts you.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

Agreed--I've edited the post to add this caveat.

I'll sometimes use this phrase. When I use the phrase I generally use to mean "I'm biased in this issue. I've attempted to adjust my confidence in the direction against where my biases would lead, but I can't evaluate how successful I've been." This is a useful phrase when one is dealing with complicated issues where one might have a bias.

[-][anonymous]10y 14

If someone says "I know I'm biased, but...", then I take that as a signal that they are expressing a personal preference, or some other harmless thing. I don't think this is necessarily something to avoid, because conversation is not usually about presenting evidence and argument. From the standpoint of advancing knowledge, conversation is mostly a waste of time. But it serves other functions.

As a point of contrast, in this forum, we mostly don't converse. We discuss.

Therefore, "I know I'm biased, but" is a cached thought that we would be better off without.

I seem to more frequently hear: "I know I have a vested interest, but..."

...which is a pretty reasonable thing to say.

That's pretty much what I mean when I say it. Maybe I should switch to that.

I can't speak for others, but when I use that phrase I mean "please point out why I'm probably wrong so that I can update!"

I'm not sure if I've ever said this phrase or an analogue myself, but what I expect to hear as a followup, the cached association I have, is an attempt at an airtight argument for the point. In other words, "I may be motivated to reach this particular conclusion, nevertheless, correcting for that bias, I think it is still correct, and this is why I think that must be so."

Maybe this individual is saying, "I know I'm biased" as a sort of disclosure of where their views are coming from. If they did not say that they are biased, and it is later revealed that they are biased, then people would likely accuse said individual of misrepresenting his positions and claiming "objectivity" when he had no right to possess it. For example, had that person you quoted said, "IPhone was the best!" without me knowing that he had a bias in that belief, I might have sincerely believed him, and this could lead to terrible consequences, like me buying an IPhone instead of a potentially better version.

It's clear that this individual likely does sincerely and rationally believe whatever he believes, with or without his bias, but it's important to admit the existence of this bias to avoid accusations of "falsely portraying yourself as objective" later on. And it's better to disclose your bias rather than not mention it and end up having said bias be unmasked or revealed and you suffering embarrassment.

Maybe an additional social rule could be that every time someone says "I know I'm bias but..." they're obliged to explain exactly why they expect the effects of the bias to be small, or how they've lessened the effects.

Kudos to you for the example.

This common use of "I know I'm biased, but..." and its equivalent phrases is definitely a good thing to point out and work to avoid.

The proposed catch-and-analyze method for when you say such things yourself would also be useful from the other side of the conversation, as a more explicit exercise: Your conversational companion says 'I know I'm biased...' and that's a signal right there for you to ask 'how/why?' and get them thinking and talking about it. I actually think that done right, it could be turned from an unproductive 'please ignore my bad argument' signal into a pretty good jumping-off point for a double-teamed analysis of the issue.

In this vein, I actually find it useful to state my biases sometimes in conversation, as a sort of assisted sanity check - my friend might be able to catch connections from some of those biases to my arguments better than I, and in stating them, I explicitly remind myself what they are and that I should be dealing with them. If for instance I'm biased in favor of Idea X by my Inherent Trait Y (e.g. something like being a student, white, female, etc) Trait Y (hence the potential for bias) isn't going to go away; therefore the most productive path is to a) acknowledge it and b) apply a correction factor to the weighting of arguments that link to that bias.

I actually use "I may be bias" or "I may be wrong" either humorously, as a means of softening a claim, or because I know I'm lacking information/have not thought about the matter extensively/am less expert than the other person ("may be wrong" in all those cases").

It's funny when it's obvious, like if you're describing the talents of your child or significant other.

It's useful when you know you're right but you want the other person to be able to agree with you, rather than to force them. It's particularly useful when addressing someone of higher status who has made an error.

["I may be wrong" is] useful when you know you're right but you want the other person to be able to agree with you, rather than to force them

This is very counterintuitive to me. My natural reaction to "I may be wrong, but...", which I instinctively project onto other people, is "well, why should I listen to you, then?"

Does anyone else find the idea of making yourself more persuasive by undermining your own credibility a little odd?

It's not undermining your own credibility, since "I may be wrong" is generally a truism. It's more of a display of humility, which can be very helpful if (A) you're a lot smarter than the other person and they basically know it, or (B) the other person outranks you, and to be directly contradicted by a subordinate would be embarassing.

As an example, I'll often use this preface (or, "I'm confused; it was my understanding that not-X.") when asking a question in a law school class, where I think the professor may have misstated the law. Usually, I think they actually have - though I'm not always right - and this works a helluva lot better than saying, "But Professor, the law is not-X."

"I'm confused" is much better than "I may be wrong" and (especially) "I may be biased". It's just as modest, but more informative.

And -- importantly -- it links the modesty to your epistemic state, not your seniority level. To the extent that "I may be wrong" is, as you say, a truism, it doesn't communicate any information about your knowledge and is just verbal filler whose actual meaning is unconnected to its semantic content .

On the other hand, examples like "I may be biased, but my relative Person X is the greatest person in the world" are clearly instances of undermining one's own credibility. As such, I find them grating.

'I know I'm biased but' is usually followed by a suggestion and not a statement of fact when I hear it.

The acknowledged bias can also relate to coming up with a set of options to begin with, instead of just choosing from pre-established ones. In such cases it's a lot harder to correct for.

I think of the phrase as signaling comradery and inclusion if the listener feels the same way. For example, often the socially happy response is to emphatically answer, 'me too! I couldn't live without my i-pod!'.

It is a bit of a low wage gamble, often submitted to the air, even among people you don't expect to agree. In these cases, the signal is that somewhere there is an in-group that feels this way.

I see it as a norm-thing, along the lines of, 'I'm biased about this and that's OK, because why wouldn't I be?'.

As Constant wrote, my experience is that it is meant for inconsequential personal preferences. If someone ever used the phrase for something that did matter to the listener, I think a simple appeal to the importance of the choice would be quite sobering.

For example if someone said, 'I know I'm biased, but I love my SUV', the statement could be gunned down with, 'I know I'm biased but I love my planet'. Of course it would be rude to do this in conversation, since the 'I know I'm biased ...' is foremost a friendly white-flag signal. (NB I personally have no problem with SUVs.)

"I know I'm biased, but..."

Roughly what you are expected to put on papers you write when funded by pharmaceuticals. Sometimes useful but I certainly see the point Tetronian is making. It is damn annoying when people abuse this kind of cached thought for purposes that it should not apply to. Also makes them look kinda stupid to those who parse the words clearly.