Error Management and Bias

We make mistakes. We make errors. We regret them. We move on. And then we commit them

again. Few exist who analyse their errors to build something from the scratch. Somewhere close

to that lies the infamous error management theory. 

One of the greatest challenges for humankind is comprehending what is going on in someone's mind. People don’t always disclose exactly what they are thinking, they can be ambiguous or downright deceptive. For example, when a woman smiles at a man, is she interested in him or

just being nice? The errors people make in judging others are systematic, meaning that they tend

to be biased in one direction or another. In simpler words, say you might prefer the dark red

apple better than the light red one, even if both of them are said to taste the same, you would still

choose the dark red apple. In this scenario, you are biased towards the dark red apple. 

If you judged that the woman was interested in the man, for instance, when she actually was not,

you would make a false positive error. On the other hand, you would make a false negative error

if you believed that a person did not have a particular intention when the person actually did. If

you judged that the woman was not interested in the man when she was, you would make a false

negative error.

Error management theory proposes that the direction of a bias in social judgment is tied to how

costly different kinds of errors are. This psychological theory explains a bunch of biases such. To

mention some,

- The tendency of people to overestimate the dangerousness of unfamiliar others

- The tendency for people to infer that they will be caught if they attempt to cheat in

certain types of social interactions, even when they know that their identity is concealed

from others

- The tendency for people to avoid close contact with non-contagious sick, injured, or

unfamiliar others who pose little risk

- The tendency for people to have certain positive illusions that cause them to strive to

attain goals that are very difficult to attain, but if they are attained lead to substantial


Psychologists often debate whether humans are rational or irrational. Those arguing that humans

are irrational cite evidence of bias and errors in human judgment. 

Nevertheless, there are practical implications for understanding error management biases. The

Safeway supermarket chain made news in the 1990s because of their service-with-a-smile policy,

which required all employees to smile and make eye contact with customers. The female

employees in the chain filed complaints about this policy because they found that men tended to

misinterpret their friendliness as sexual interest, leading to instances of sexual harassment.

Knowledge of error management biases and the cues that trigger them help to create better social


Various biases in thinking and decision-making have been highlighted by Daniel Kahneman and

have been shown to cause cognitive errors in psychological and economic decisions. In the

economic world, error management theory often is used to form strategies out of business errors

which, therefore, give a business a roadmap to follow along its journey.

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