In a previous article, we discussed the Pygmalion effect, a cognitive bias that can interfere with the teacher-learner relationship and have significant effects on learning. However, of the 250 or so cognitive biases known to date, it is not the only one that deserves special attention in education. Here are three other formidable ones: the bias blind spot, the halo effect and the curse of knowledge.

Bias blind spot

The blind spot evokes the visual partiality we all have: an area of our retina is devoid of photoreceptors, therefore blind, and it is our brain that completes the missing visual portion. In terms of cognitive bias, the bias blind spot consists of noticing the impact of cognitive bias much better on the judgment of others than on one’s own. In reality, we are all equally susceptible to being fooled by cognitive biases.

One of the phenomena that is at the origin of this bias is the high value that is generally placed on information coming from introspection (Pronin and Kugler, 2007). As a result, when we evaluate our own perceptions, we tend to give more credit to the information that comes from our thoughts than from our actions. In contrast, we do the opposite when we judge others, giving more importance to their actions than to their thoughts, even if we know the latter.

This phenomenon called the “illusion of introspection” is caused by the fact that, for our psychological well-being, we seek to maintain a good self-image and thus, the idea that our judgments may not be rational, especially when we are convinced that they are, taints this positive image we cultivate of ourselves. This phenomenon is also amplified by the unconscious nature of cognitive biases: an effort of introspection does not necessarily help us to counter a cognitive bias, and we are inclined to interpret this lack of information from introspection as evidence of the absence of cognitive bias (Pronin, 2008).

In an educational context, the bias blind spot can cause a teacher to behave towards learners in a way that is consistent with specific preconceived ideas that he or she knows to be wrong and would not apply to him or her. Examples include stereotypes that males are better at certain types of learning (mathematics, science, sports, etc.) and females at others (reading, writing, social studies, etc.); or stereotypes that people of certain backgrounds are “naturally” stronger in certain subjects, for example, Asians in mathematics and science.

The halo effect

Also known as the “notoriety effect” and the “contamination effect”, the halo effect occurs when a person’s overall impression of another one is constructed from a single characteristic that is perceived in that person. If that characteristic is judged to be positive, then one is more likely to perceive or imagine one’s other characteristics as also being more positive; and, contrariwise, if that characteristic is judged to be negative, then one is more likely to imagine or perceive one’s other characteristics as also being more negative. The halo effect not only affects our perception of the other person but also our expectations of him or her.

A classic example of this halo effect is beauty. A U.S. study of elementary school teachers in the 1970s provided some significant results in this regard (Clifford and Walster, 1973). These teachers were presented with pictures of children from which they were asked to comment on the following three aspects: their intelligence, their chances of success, and the importance of their parents’ involvement in their school activities. The results showed that a child judged “good-looking” by the teachers was presumed to be more intelligent, more likely to succeed in the classroom and to have parents more involved in his or her school activities than a child judged less good-looking.

To ensure that all learners have the same chances of success, teachers need to be wary of this halo effect, which can influence the way they interact with their pupils or students and the evaluation of their performance. Indeed, marking assignments and exams involves making judgements about learners’ performance (Durand and Chouinard, 2012) and any judgement is unfortunately likely to be biased (see The 3 speeds of thought). In the latter case, when possible, blind correction by asking learners to identify their assignments and exams by their student ID number rather than their name may be a solution. On the other hand, the halo effect can also originate from the presentation aspect of an assignment. Unless this criterion is evaluated, the risk of causing a halo effect in such cases can be reduced by requiring that work be presented in a consistent manner.

The Curse of Knowledge

In spite of a name that can raise questions, the curse of knowledge is not “witchcraft” or hard to understand or recognize… At least not by others! This bias manifests itself by the difficulty, when one has acquired particular knowledge, to put oneself in the place of a person who does not have this knowledge. We all have in mind the image of the scientist or expert who speaks about his or her field in hyper-specialized jargon that is incomprehensible to the average person. This difficulty in popularizing knowledge is the most obvious consequence of this cognitive bias, but it is not the only one. The curse of knowledge — also known as the “knowledge overload” — can make it difficult for those who suffer from it to understand the realities of non-experts and to anticipate the reactions of non-experts in the field of expertise in question. This bias may even prevent them from having the attitude necessary to eventually gain the support of non-experts for their knowledge or cause.

The more knowledge is integrated into a discipline, the more abstractly it is talked about unless a conscious effort is made to vulgarize it — and again… this ability to make complex knowledge accessible is not given to everyone and often requires a great deal of upstream thinking. Even if teachers are trained to develop their extension skills, the act of teaching inevitably multiplies the risks of falling into the trap of the knowledge curse.

Some factors may further weaken the teacher’s alertness to this bias; for example, the fact that students are older, have a higher level of education or are studying in a highly specialized field may lead the teacher to make less effort in explaining things than would actually be desirable. In such a context, some learners may feel that they do not have what it takes to understand the subject matter or even to pursue a career in the field that might have been of interest to them, but which now seems to them hermetically sealed and out of reach. Given the unfortunate effects that this cognitive bias can have on learners’ learning paths, every teacher must be aware that, despite his or her training as a provider of knowledge, he or she too can fall prey to this curse of knowledge… And let’s put it this way: to know it is the first step to ward off the curse!

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.