What is the difference between the words "unbiased" and "impartial" in terms of formality, usage, meaning?

  • 2
    There isn't a dime's worth of difference between them. – Robusto Jul 6 '15 at 15:59
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    They are indeed very close synonyms. If there is a difference, the first is a negation of a personal inclination or habit of thought, while the second is a negation of allegiance to any one party to a dispute. As to formality, both are quite at home in the most formal of registers; in the most informal, both might seem a little pretentious, something like "fair" or "fair-minded" being preferable to either. – Brian Donovan Jul 6 '15 at 16:06

Comparing the definitions:



Showing no prejudice for or against something; impartial:
his assessment of the benefits and drawbacks was unbiased



Treating all rivals or disputants equally:

Favoring one party in a dispute over another party in a dispute, is a specific expression of bias. Like partial is more specific than biased, impartial is more specific than unbiased. A person could be impartial and still harbor other cognitive biases that influences their judgment:

Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment

As an example:

Judge Jerry suffers from an extrinsic incentive bias. When he sits on the bench to judge between litigants, he can be impartial, because his bias expresses equally for and against each party in the dispute. But his perception of motives will still be skewed by his bias in a way that influences his judgments. People who share his cognitive bias would rarely question his judgements, but those who don't share his cognitive bias will be inclined to challenge his judgements, even though they are delivered impartially.

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    There is also the fact that while being biased is generally connected with prejudice (i.e., preconceived notions, often based on nothing factual) and is almost exclusively negative, being partial can be quite neutral and is more closely connected to educated judgment based on empirical knowledge. So being unbiased is more likely to mean being free of prejudgmental partiality than impartial. At least in my head. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 6 '15 at 17:58
  • Precisely, @JanusBahsJacquet! – ScotM Jul 6 '15 at 18:00
  • Everyone has biases, if only that I prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream, but healthy people can acknowledge their biases and accommodate the biases of others so that they can be impartial in their judgments. – Good A.M. Jul 6 '15 at 22:33

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