Sunday, May 7, 2023

Omission Bias

 “The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

The human mind is a complex computer which swiftly processes tons of data in a matter of moments. 

But it often does so by using shortcuts. 

These shortcuts are known as cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias can be explained as a systematic thought process caused by the tendency of the human brain to simplify information processing through a filter of personal experience and preferences.

In other words, to work quicker, our mind tends to process information based upon 

  1. Our desires

  2. Our experiences

In order to improve cognitive functioning, it is important to recognize how our minds, and our children’s minds, work, as it is nearly impossible to fix anything without first recognizing the problem.

In previous articles, I’ve written about outcome bias (where we put too much emphasis on previous results) and confirmation bias (how we use our beliefs and previous experiences to fill in the gaps). For the purpose of this article, I’d like to discuss omission bias.

Case 1: Matilda is severely allergic to peanuts. I know this and I add peanuts to Matilda’s salad without her knowing. Matilda dies as a result.

Case 2: Matilda is severely allergic to peanuts. She goes to the buffet and unknowingly takes a salad which contains peanuts. I notice this and decide not to inform her. She eats the salad and dies.

Omission bias states that people perceive inaction (case 2) as less harmful than action (case 1).

Despite the fact that in both scenarios your behavior directly led to Matilda’s death.

Case 3: Gregg is on trial. Tim gives false testimony implicating Gregg. Gregg is found guilty.

Case 4: Gregg is on trial. Tim is a witness and can give testimony exonerating Gregg. Tim doesn't come forward and Gregg is convicted.

Once again, people will often state that the 3rd case is worse, yet both cases have the same result.

Omission bias stems from a basic view that one should avoid any direct cause of harm. Yet it ignores the consequences of passivity.

Standing by idly and “watching” something bad happen isn’t “better” than actively causing the bad thing.

And yet, on an individual level and even a communal level, we do just that. 

Omission bias might also be one of the many reasons why it is difficult for victims to report sexual abuse.

They view their testimony as direct harm (Keep in mind, victims often have conflicted feelings towards their abusers).

The lack of testimony is viewed as indirect harm (e.g. future victims).

How do we overcome omission bias?

For starters, we need to stop minimizing the results of inaction.

Damage caused via action and damage caused by inaction can be equally harmful.

The more we justify inaction over action, the more we enable omission bias to continue and flourish in our own brains, as well as within society as a whole.

As Mark Twain said: “The truth hurts, but silence kills”.

Yisroel Picker is a Social Worker who lives in Jerusalem. He has a private practice which specializes in working with people of all ages helping them understand their own thought processes, enabling them to improve their level of functioning, awareness, social skills and more.

To speak with Yisroel about speaking at a child safety event or to discuss a personal case, email him at

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