To think more flexibly about a problem or an issue it helps to minimize the inherence bias, which is our tendency to infer that something is good or socially desirable if it seems inherent or typical.
Psychologists Christina Tworek and Andrei Cimpian of University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign and New York University show in their 2016 study how inherence bias is associated with more rigid and inflexible judgment.
For example, in their experiments Tworek and Cimpian asked their subjects to consider why we give roses as Valentine’s Day gifts and if it might be better to give other gifts instead of roses. The subjects naturally tended to focus on intrinsic features of roses such as their beautiful appearance and other inherent information. All of this made them more likely to think that roses should be the Valentine’s Day gift, and it also made them less willing to question status quo and consider other alternative gifts.
How Contextual Information Reduces Inherence Bias
Minimizing the inherence bias helps to make sure that people think more flexibly about an issue and are more inclined to consider alternatives to status quo. To achieve that, it is important to find and use contextual (extrinsic) information.
In the example of roses as the Valentine’s Day gifts, the subjects became more willing to question status quo and be open to alternatives when they were given some contextual information, for instance, that a more important reason why we use roses as the Valentine’s Day gift is not their inherent appearance but rather the advertising and marketing by florists and also the fact that businesses needed a flower that could be imported in bulk from countries with milder February temperatures.
Why contextual information increases flexible thinking? Primarily because it makes it much easier to see that things could have turned out differently. The less you think that something is inevitable or necessary, the more likely you’ll be to question status quo and openly consider various alternatives. In the example of the Valentine’s Day gifts, the context makes it easier to consider other scenarios, such as the possibility that businesses other than florists could have been more successful at marketing their products or that florists could have chosen other flowers than roses as their flagship product for the Valentine’s Day.
- Christina M. Tworek and Andrei Cimpian. Why Do People Tend to Infer “Ought” From “Is”? The Role of Biases in Explanation. Psychological Science 1 –14 (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616650875
- Andrei Cimpian and Erika Salomon, The Inherence Heuristic: An Intuitive Means of Making Sense of the World, and a Potential Precursor to Psychological Essentialism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37, 461–527 (2014). doi:10.1017/S0140525X13002197