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5 Common Thinking Biases in Education

5 Common Thinking Biases in Education

As human beings, our thought processes are not always the clearest or the most rational. Psychologists have identified over 100 thinking biases. These range from the quirky (The ‘Benjamin Franklin Effect’ which states that, once someone does a favour for you, they are more likely to do another) to the serious (‘The Pessimism Bias’ which is believing that bad things are more likely to happen to you in the future’).

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But what are some of the most common biases in education? This blog looks at the five thinking biases that are prevalent in schools:


The Hawthorne Effect – This is named after an experiment at The Hawthorne Factory in America. Keen to find out how their staff could be more productive, the owners of the factory observed them. Knowing that they were being watched, the employees worked much harder and productivity increased. When they were no longer being observed, productivity returned to normal rates. 

This has some interesting implications for teacher observations, as it is difficult to give someone feedback on how they are doing, if your mere presence alters how they go about doing their work. Likewise, if students are undergoing an intervention to improve a particular area and they know they are part of an intervention, it will surely impact their subsequent behaviour.


The Ikea Effect named after the Swedish department store, which requires you to spend hours (often far more then you were hoping for) on assembling your flat-pack furniture. Researchers have found that people tend to place a disproportionately high value on the things they personally create. In reality, this means that if someone has an idea, and has worked on it, they are more likely to cling to the notion that it therefore must be a good idea.

This is similar to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ which describes how people make future decisions based on how much effort they have put in previously, as opposed to how fruitful they may be in the future. It is akin to throwing good money after bad. In schools, this leads to failing strategies and interventions being prolonged longer then they should be. Teachers can protect themselves from this bias by knowing that just because it is your idea and you have put a lot of work into it, this doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.


The Bandwagon Effect - This describes how you are more likely to believe in an idea if lots of other people already believe it. When so many people believe something, it is easy to go with the flow. Individual decision making and critical reasoning are abdicated in favour of the group, as you assume everyone else has done the thinking for you. This partially explains why neuromyths are so common in education.

Used wisely, this desire to follow the group can be a force for good. For example, a quirky study found that one of the most effective strategies to get hotel guest to re-use their towels (and thus saving the hotel laundry costs) was to simply tell them that everyone else is already doing it. This is the reason why some road signs now indicate what percentage of the population drive at the recommended speed limit, and not how many drive over it.

Teachers can inoculate themselves from the downside of the bandwagon effect by maintaining a healthy dose of scepticism on the latest fad (at least until they have seen the evidence for themselves) and use it by actively highlighting and praising the group norms they want to see from their students with a view to others pupils following suit.


Confirmation Bias – this refers to the idea that people pay more attention to ideas that they had previously agreed with. The confirmation bias is akin to starting with a conclusion and then looking for and finding evidence that proves it to be true. This means we may struggle to see what is actually occurring.  A great example of this is the video below. Can you figure out the rule?


This means that if we want a strategy to work, we often look for proof that it does. Likewise, if we were to label a student as disruptive, we are more likely to pay attention and remember the times they misbehave (and subconsciously disregard and forget the times they didn’t).

Students as well as teachers suffer from the confirmation bias. In Daniel T. Willingham’s excellent book, When Can You Trust The Experts, he details a fascinating study in which half a class of students were told that their supply teacher was ‘rather cold, industrious, critical, practical and determined’. The other half were told the exact same sentence, except the words ‘rather cold’ were replaced with ‘very warm’. Students who had expected to be taught by a warm teacher rated the supply teacher as much nicer and funnier than those who were expecting the teacher to be distant.


The Dunning Kruger Effect: This is potentially the most frustrating bias of them all. It describes how unskilled people tend to overestimate their ability, whereas experts doubt themselves. Researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger were inspired by the story of an inept bank robber McArthur Wheeler who believed the covering his face in lemon juice would make him invisible to the banks CCTV cameras. When arrested for this heist, he was baffled as to why his plan didn’t work.

In Dunning and Kruger’s subsequent study on student grades, they found that the biggest gap between perceived ability and actual results were in students in the lowest percentile. This is a real limit to student motivation, as why would someone be determined to improve if they already believe they are better than they actually are? There is no easy answer on how best to tackle the Dunning Kruger effect, as we want students to have the self-awareness of knowing what to improve without that realisation demotivating them into believing that they will always be at that level. We've written a longer post about the Dunning-Kruger effect: click here to read it.



Think none of these biases apply to you? Chances are you are suffering from the Bias Blind Spot, which refers to the belief that other people are more likely to have these biases. The good news is now that you know what some of the most common thinking biases are in education, you are far more likely to spot them and overcome them. Or maybe that’s just me suffering from the Optimism Bias.

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This article was first published on The Guardian website on 31.03.17 You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch

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