Skip to main content

There's a Name for Why We Give Too Much Weight to the Opinions of Others

And it's called equality bias.
(Illustration: Mark Matcho)

(Illustration: Mark Matcho)

Two heads: way better than one. Right? Your kindergarten teacher probably told you so, nudging you to respect your peers’ perspectives. Maybe you’ve even echoed those words to your own kids. But it turns out—depending on the heads in question—that two might actually be worse than one, thanks to what a research team recently dubbed “equality bias.”

Social scientists have long observed a discrepancy between how well people think they do at a given task and how well they actually do. Equality bias is these findings’ cousin: a discrepancy between the weight we should give and the weight we actually give the opinions of others.

In experiments conducted in Denmark, Iran, and China, teams of two were shown two pictures of six nearly identical circles—a single circle was slightly darker than the rest—and tasked with identifying which picture contained the variant. In 256 trials, each team member gave his answer separately; in cases where the answers diverged, one member was shown the other’s answer and then made a final decision. (All the participants were male.) The low performers took the high performers’ input less often than they should have. Conversely, but perhaps more worryingly, the high performers put too much weight on what the low performers had to say. This was the case even when the subjects were given a running tally of each other’s accuracy rates, and even when they were offered money for correct answers.

Depending on your outlook, this finding qualifies as something between “interesting potential fluke of group psychology” and “another terrifying explanation of why humanity will never make real progress.” But there is light amid the dark: Additional research has shown that simple exposure to the idea that intelligence is improvable can make our self-assessments more accurate. The possibility of self-improvement makes us take accurate feedback more seriously. Maybe, in order to sort out each other’s opinions, we should renew—somehow—our sense that doing so might possibly matter.


Submit your response to this story to If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.

For more from Pacific Standard, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletter and subscribe to our print magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store and on Zinio and other platforms.