The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 1 of 3)

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It is often surprising to think about the large number of people that still ascribe to dogmatic beliefs, despite our living in a post-enlightenment age of science, reason, and skeptical inquiry.  We have a plethora of scientific evidence and an enormous amount of acquired data illustrating just how fallacious various dogmatic belief systems are, as well as how dogmatism in general is utterly useless for gaining knowledge or making responsible decisions throughout one’s life.  We also have an ample means of distributing this valuable information to the public through academic institutions, educational television programming, online scientific resources, books, etc.  Yet, we still have an incredibly large number of people preferably believing in various dogmatic claims (and with a feeling of “certainty”) over those supported by empirical evidence and reason.  Furthermore, when some of these people are presented with the scientific evidence that refutes their dogmatic belief, they outright deny that the evidence exists or they simply rationalize it away.  This is a very troubling problem in our society as this kind of muddled thinking often prevents many people from making responsible, rational decisions.  Irrational thinking in general has caused many people to vote for political candidates for all the wrong reasons.  It has caused many people to raise their own children in ways that promote intolerance, prejudice, and that undervalue if not entirely abhor invaluable intellectual virtues such as rational skepticism and critical thought.
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Some may reasonably assume that (at least) many of these irrational belief systems and behaviors are simply a result of having low self-esteem, inadequate education and/or low intelligence, and it turns out that several dozen sociological studies have found evidence that supports this line of reasoning.  That is, a person that has lower self-esteem, lower education, and/or lower intelligence is more likely to be religious and dogmatic.  However, there is clearly much more to it than that, especially since there are still a lot of people that obtain these irrational belief systems that are also well educated and intelligent.  Furthermore, every human being is quite often irrational in their thinking.  So what else could be contributing to this irrationality (and dogmatism)?  Well, the answer seems to lie in the realms of cognitive science and psychology.  I’ve decided to split this post into three parts, because there is a lot of information I’d like to cover.  Here’s the link to part 2 of 3, which can also be found at the end of this post.

Cognitive Biases

Human beings are very intelligent relative to most other species on this planet, however, we are still riddled with various flaws in our brains which drastically reduce our ability to think logically or rationally.  This isn’t surprising after one recognizes that our brains are the product of evolution, and thus they weren’t “designed” in any way at all, let alone to operate logically or rationally.  Instead, what we see in human beings is a highly capable and adaptable brain, yet one with a number of cognitive biases and shortcomings.  Though a large number (if not all) of these biases developed as a sub-optimal yet fairly useful survival strategy, specifically within the context of our evolutionary past, most of them have become a liability in our modern civilization, and often impede our intellectual development as individuals and as a society.  A lot of these cognitive biases serve (or once served) as an effective way at making certain decisions rather quickly, that is, the biases have effectively served as heuristics for simplifying the decision making process with many everyday problems.  While heuristics are valuable and often make our decision making faculties more efficient, they are often far less than optimal due to the fact that increased efficiency is often afforded by a reduction in accuracy.  Again, this is exactly what we expect to find with products of evolution — a suboptimal strategy for solving some problem or accomplishing some goal, but one that has worked well enough to give the organism (in this case, human beings) an advantage over the competition within some environmental niche.

So what kinds of cognitive biases do we have exactly, and how many of them have cognitive scientists discovered?  A good list of them can be found here.  I’m going to mention a few of them in this post, specifically those that promote or reinforce dogmatic thinking, those that promote or reinforce an appeal to a supernatural world view, and ultimately those that seem to most hinder overall intellectual development and progress.  To begin, I’d like to briefly discuss Cognitive Dissonance Theory and how it pertains to the automated management of our beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The human mind doesn’t tolerate internal conflicts very well, and so when we have beliefs that contradict one another or when we are exposed to new information that conflicts with an existing belief, some degree of cognitive dissonance results and we are effectively pushed out of our comfort zone.  The mind attempts to rid itself of this cognitive dissonance through a few different methods.  A person may alter the importance of the original belief or that of the new information, they may change the original belief, or they may seek evidence that is critical of the new information.  Generally, the easiest path for the mind to take is the first and last method mentioned here, as it is far more difficult for a person to change their existing beliefs, partly due to the fact that a person’s existing set of beliefs is their only frame of reference when encountering new information, and there is an innate drive to maintain a feeling of familiarity and a feeling of certainty of our beliefs.

The primary problem with these automated cognitive dissonance reduction methods is that they tend to cause people to defend their beliefs in one way or another rather than to question them and try to analyze them objectively.  Unfortunately, this means that we often fail to consider new evidence and information using a rational approach, and this in turn can cause people to acquire quite a large number of irrational, false beliefs, despite having a feeling of certainty regarding the truth of those beliefs.  It is also important to note that many of the cognitive biases that I’m about to mention result from these cognitive dissonance reduction methods, and they can become compounded to create severe lapses in judgement.

Confirmation Bias, Semmelweis Reflex, and The Frequency Illusion

One of the most significant cognitive biases we have is what is commonly referred to as confirmation bias.  Basically, this bias refers to our tendency to seek out, interpret, or remember information in a particular way that serves to confirm our beliefs.  To put it more simply, we often will only see what we want to see.  It is a method that our brain uses in order to be able to sift through large amounts of information and piece it together with what we already believe into a meaningful story line or explanation.  Just as we expect, it ultimately optimizes for efficiency over accuracy, and therein lies the problem.  Even though this bias applies to everyone, the dogmatist in particular has a larger cognitive barrier to overcome because they’re also using a fallacious epistemological methodology right from the start (i.e. appealing to some authority rather than to reason and evidence).  So while everyone is affected by this bias to some degree, the dogmatic believer in particular has an epistemological flaw that serves to compound the issue and make matters worse.  They will, to a much higher degree, live their life unconsciously ignoring any evidence encountered that refutes their beliefs (or fallaciously reinterpreting it to be in their favor), and they will rarely if ever attempt to actively seek out such evidence to try and disprove their beliefs.  A more rational thinker on the other hand, has a belief system primarily based on a reliable epistemological methodology (which uses empirical evidence to support it), and one that has been proven to work and provide increasingly accurate knowledge better than any other method (i.e. the scientific method).  Nevertheless, everyone is affected by this bias, and because it is operating outside the conscious mind, we all fail to notice it as it actively modifies our perception of reality.

One prominent example in our modern society, illustrating how this cognitive bias can reinforce dogmatic thinking (and with large groups of people), is the ongoing debate between Young Earth Creationists and the scientific consensus regarding evolutionary theory.  Even though the theory of evolution is a scientific fact (much like many other scientific theories, such as the theory of gravity, or the Germ theory of disease), and even though there are several hundred thousand scientists that can attest to its validity, as well as a plethora of evidence within a large number of scientific fields supporting its validity, Creationists seem to be in complete and utter denial of this actuality.  Not only do they ignore the undeniable wealth of evidence that is presented to them, but they also misinterpret evidence (or cherry pick) to suit their position.  This problem is compounded by the fact that their beliefs are only supported by fallacious tautologies [e.g. “It’s true because (my interpretation of) a book called the Bible says so…”], and other irrational arguments based on nothing more than a particular religious dogma and a lot of intellectual dishonesty.

I’ve had numerous debates with these kinds of people (and I used to BE one of them many years ago, so I understand how many of them arrived at these beliefs), and I’ll often quote several scientific sources and various logical arguments to support my claims (or to refute theirs), and it is often mind boggling to witness their response, with the new information seemingly going in one ear and coming out the other without undergoing any mental processing or critical consideration.  It is as if they didn’t hear a single argument that was pointed out to them and merely executed some kind of rehearsed reflex.  The futility of the communication is often confirmed when one finds themselves having to repeat the same arguments and refutations over and over again, seemingly falling on deaf ears, with no logical rebuttal of the points made.  On a side note, this reflex-like response where a person quickly rejects new evidence because it contradicts their established belief system is known as the “Semmelweis reflex/effect”, but it appears to be just another form of confirmation bias.  Some of these cases of denial and irrationality are nothing short of ironic, since these people are living in a society that owes its technological advancements exclusively to rational, scientific methodologies, and these people are indeed patronizing and utilizing many of these benefits of science everyday of their lives (even if they don’t realize it).  Yet we still find many of them hypocritically abhorring or ignoring science and reason whenever it is convenient to do so, such as when they try to defend their dogmatic beliefs.

Another prominent example of confirmation bias reinforcing dogmatic thinking relates to various other beliefs in the supernatural.  People that believe in the efficacy of prayer, for example, will tend to remember prayers that were “answered” and forget or rationalize away any prayers that weren’t “answered”, since their beliefs reinforce such a selective memory.  Similarly, if a plane crash or other disaster occurs, some people with certain religious beliefs will often mention or draw attention to the idea that their god or some supernatural force must have intervened or played a role in preventing the death of any survivors (if there are any), while they seem to downplay or ignore the facts pertaining to the many others that did not survive (if there are any survivors at all).  In the case of prayer, numerous studies have shown that prayer for another person (e.g. to heal them from an illness) is ineffective when that person doesn’t know that they’re being prayed for, thus any efficacy of prayer has been shown to be a result of the placebo effect and nothing more.  It may be the case that prayer is one of the most effective placebos, largely due to the incredibly high level of belief in its efficacy, and the fact that there is no expected time frame for it to “take effect”.  That is, since nobody knows when a prayer will be “answered”, then even if the prayer isn’t “answered” for several months or even several years (and time ranges like this are not unheard of for many people that have claimed to have prayers answered), then confirmation bias will be even more effective than a traditional medical placebo.  After all, a typical placebo pill or treatment is expected to work within a reasonable time frame comparable to other medicine or treatments taken in the past, but there’s no deadline for a prayer to be answered by.  It’s reasonable to assume that even if these people were shown the evidence that prayer is no more effective than a placebo (even if it is the most effective placebo available), they would reject it or rationalize it away, once again, because their beliefs require it to be so.  The same bias applies to numerous other purportedly paranormal phenomena, where people see significance in some event because of how their memory or perception is operating in order to promote or sustain their beliefs.  As mentioned earlier, we often see what we want to see.

There is also a closely related bias known as congruence bias, which occurs because people rely too heavily on directly testing a given hypothesis, and often neglect to indirectly test that hypothesis.  For example, suppose that you were introduced to a new lighting device with two buttons on it, a green button and a red button.  You are told that the device will only light up by pressing the green button.  A direct test of this hypothesis would be to press the green button, and see if it lights up.  An indirect test of this hypothesis would be to press the red button, and see if it doesn’t light up.  Congruence bias illustrates that we tend to avoid the indirect testing of hypotheses, and thus we can start to form irrational beliefs by mistaking correlation with causation, or by forming incomplete explanations of causation.  In the case of the aforementioned lighting device, it could be the case that both buttons cause it to light up.  Think about how this congruence bias affects our general decision making process, where when we combine it with our confirmation bias, we are inclined to not only reaffirm our beliefs, but to avoid trying to disprove them (since we tend to avoid indirect testing of those beliefs).  This attitude and predisposition reinforces dogmatism by assuming the truth of one’s beliefs and not trying to verify them in any rational, critical way.

An interesting cognitive bias that often works in conjunction with a person’s confirmation bias is something referred to as the frequency illusion, whereby some detail of an event or some specific object may enter a person’s thoughts or attention, and then suddenly it seems that they are experiencing the object or event at a higher than normal frequency.  For example, if a person thinks about a certain animal, say a turtle, they may start noticing lots of turtles around them that they would have normally overlooked.  This person may even go to a store and suddenly notice clothing or other gifts with turtle patterns or designs on them that they didn’t seem to notice before.  After all, “turtle” is on their mind, or at least in the back of their mind, so their brain is unconsciously “looking” for turtles, and the person isn’t aware of their own unconscious pattern recognition sensitivity.  As a result, they may think that this perceived higher frequency of “seeing turtles” is abnormal and that it must be more than simply a coincidence.  If this happens to a person that appeals to the supernatural, their confirmation bias may mistake this frequency illusion for a supernatural event, or something significant.  Since this happens unconsciously, people can’t control this illusion or prevent it from happening.  However, once a person is aware of the frequency illusion as a cognitive bias that exists, they can at least reassess their experiences with a larger toolbox of rational explanations, without having to appeal to the supernatural or other irrational belief systems.  So in this particular case, we can see how various cognitive biases can “stack up” with one another and cause serious problems in our reasoning abilities and negatively affect how accurately we perceive reality.

To read part 2 of 3, click here.

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