Inherence Bias

How do people judge what is socially good or desirable? One factor is what people consider to be inherent or typical. If something seems inherent or typical, people tend to infer that it is also good or socially desirable. 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 judgments of desirability.

Tworek and Cimpian began their paper with an example of a dissenting opinion of the US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the marriage equality case. In his opinion, Roberts basically says that historically all societies have been based on heterosexual marriage, thus only heterosexual marriage should be recognized. In essence, Roberts’ point is that if something has been a typical case in various societies it means it is socially desirable and good, and since only heterosexual marriage has been typically recognized in all societies so it is desirable in the United States to recognize only heterosexual marriage.

Inherence bias pervades all of our social and political debates, and the greatest problem with it is that it makes our thinking more rigid. 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