Abstract

People’s beliefs, and unconscious biases that arise from those beliefs, influence their judgment, decision making, and actions, as is commonly accepted among psychologists. Biases can be observed in information retrieval in situations where searchers seek or are presented with information that significantly deviates from the truth. There is little understanding of the impact of such biases in search. In this paper we study search-related biases via multiple probes: an exploratory retrospective survey, human labeling of the captions and results returned by a Web search engine, and a large-scale log analysis of search behavior on that engine. Targeting yes-no questions in the critical domain of health search, we show that Web searchers exhibit their own biases and are also subject to bias from the search engine. We clearly observe searchers favoring positive information over negative and more than expected given base rates based on consensus answers from physicians. We also show that search engines strongly favor a particular, usually positive, perspective, irrespective of the truth. Importantly, we show that these biases can be counterproductive and affect search outcomes; in our study, around half of the answers that searchers settled on were actually incorrect. Our findings have implications for search engine design, including the development of ranking algorithms that consider the desire to satisfy searchers (by validating their beliefs) and providing accurate answers and properly considering base rates. Incorporating likelihood information into search is particularly important for consequential tasks, such as those with a medical focus.