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Attentional bias

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Attentional bias is a form of cognitive bias in which a person does not examine all possible outcomes when making a judgment about a correlation or association. They may focus on one or two possibilities, while ignoring the rest.

The most commonly studied type of decision for attentional bias, is one in which there are two conditions (A and B), which can be present(P) or not present(N). This leaves four possible combination outcomes: Both are present (AP/BP), Both are not present (AN/BN), Only A is present (AP/BN), Only B is present (AN/BP). This can be better shown in table form:

A Present A Not Present
B Present AP/BP AN/BP
B Not Present AP/BN AN/BN

In everyday life, people often are subject to the attentional bias when asking themselves, "Does God answer prayers?", as pointed out by Nisbett and Ross (1980). Many would say "Yes" and justify it with "many times I've asked God for something, and He's given it to me." These people would be accepting and overemphasizing the data from the present/present (top-left) cell, because an unbiased person would counter this logic and consider data from the present/absent cell. "Has God ever given me something that I didn't ask for?" Or "Have I asked God for something and didn't receive it?" This experiment too supports Smedslund's general conclusion that subjects tend to ignore part of the table.


  • Baron, Jonathan. (2000). Thinking and Deciding (3d edition). Cambridge University Press.
  • Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
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