Smarter than we think: when our brains detect that we are biased

Psychol Sci. 2008 May;19(5):483-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02113.x.


Human reasoning is often biased by stereotypical intuitions. The nature of such bias is not clear. Some authors claim that people are mere heuristic thinkers and are not aware that cued stereotypes might be inappropriate. Other authors claim that people always detect the conflict between their stereotypical thinking and normative reasoning, but simply fail to inhibit stereotypical thinking. Hence, it is unclear whether heuristic bias should be attributed to a lack of conflict detection or a failure of inhibition. We introduce a neuroscientific approach that bears on this issue. Participants answered a classic decision-making problem (the "lawyer-engineer" problem) while the activation of brain regions believed to be involved in conflict detection (anterior cingulate) and response inhibition (lateral prefrontal cortex) was monitored. Results showed that although the inhibition area was specifically activated when stereotypical responses were avoided, the conflict-detection area was activated even when people reasoned stereotypically. The findings suggest that people detect their bias when they give intuitive responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Cues
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Echo-Planar Imaging / methods
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Intelligence / physiology*
  • Judgment / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Stereotyping*
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology