Philosophical Studies

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On the epistemic costs of implicit bias

  • Tamar Szabó GendlerEmail author

Prologue: two apparently unrelated stories (don’t let the details distract you…)

Base rates and the CIA

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Heuer 1999) provides concise and practical summaries of recent work in cognitive psychology using real-world examples intended to help CIA agents perform their daily activities more effectively. 1 Its 12th chapter—“Biases in Estimating Probabilities”—describes a number of widely-discussed findings from the heuristics and biases tradition. The chapter points out that among the errors that a well-trained CIA agent should aim to avoid are mistakes arising from what is commonly referred to as the “base-rate fallacy.” Here is an example 2:
During the Vietnam War, a fighter plane made a non-fatal strafing attack on a US aerial reconnaissance mission at twilight. Both Cambodian and Vietnamese jets operate in the area. You know the following facts:
  1. (a)

    Specific case information: The US pilot identified the fighter as...


True Belief Stereotype Threat Implicit Association Test Implicit Association Automatic Association 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



For comments and conversation regarding early drafts, I am grateful to Richard Brooks, Jack Dovidio, Andy Egan, Jeffrey Fagan, David Hilbert, Richard Holton, Joshua Knobe, Tony Laden, Alex Madva, Jennifer Nagel, Aaron Norby, Jonathan Phillips, Richard Samuels, Eric Schwitzgebel, Susanna Siegel, Matthew Noah Smith and J.D. Trout. Thanks also to the members of John Bargh’s and Jack Dovidio’s labs (Fall 2009–Spring 2010), who introduced me to the bodies of psychological literature to which this paper makes appeal. I am immensely grateful to the audiences to whom I had a chance to present this material, including those at the Oberlin Colloquium in Epistemology (April 2010) and the Harvard/MIT “Belief and its Cousins” Mini-conference (January 2011), and at the Departments of Philosophy at Brown University (October 2010), Columbia University (February 2011), Northwestern University (March 2011), University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (March 2011) and the University of Pittsburgh (April 2011); I regret that I did not take notes in ways that allow me to acknowledge specific contributions in those settings, but they are manifold. Special thanks to my Yale Philosophy colleagues—including Facundo Alonso, George Bealer, Steve Darwall, Jay Elliot, Verity Harte, Shelly Kagan, David Possen, Barbara Sattler and Zoltán Gendler Szabó—for an incredibly helpful Faculty Lunch discussion in April 2011, and to Brendan Dill for a careful reading of the paper’s penultimate draft. My greatest thanks are reserved for my extraordinary research assistant, Takuya Sawaoka, for his tireless bibliographic work and numerous outstanding suggestions, both stylistic and substantive.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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