The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 2 of 3)

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This is part 2 of 3 of this post.  Click here to read part 1.

The Feeling of Certainty & The Overconfidence Effect

There are a lot of factors that affect how certain we feel that one belief or another is in fact true.  One factor that affects this feeling of certainty is what I like to call the time equals truth fallacy.  With this cognitive bias, we tend to feel more certain about our beliefs as time progresses, despite not gaining any new evidence to support those beliefs. Since the time with a particular belief is the only factor involved here, it will have greater effects on those that are relatively isolated or sheltered from new information.  So if a person has been indoctrinated with a particular set of beliefs (let alone irrational beliefs), and they are effectively “cut off” from any sources of information that could serve to refute those beliefs, it will become increasingly more difficult to persuade them later on.  This situation sounds all too familiar, as it is often the case that dogmatic groups will isolate themselves and shelter their members from outside influences, for this very reason.  If the group can isolate their members for long enough (or the members actively isolate themselves), the dogma effectively gets burned into them, and the brainwashing is far more successful.  That this cognitive bias has been exploited by various dogmatic/religious leaders throughout history is hardly surprising considering how effective it is.

Though I haven’t researched or come across any proposed evolutionary reasons behind the development of this cognitive bias, I do have at least one hypothesis pertaining to its origin.  I’d say that this bias may have resulted from the fact that the beliefs that matter most (from an evolutionary perspective) are those that are related to our survival goals (e.g. finding food sources or evading a predator).  So naturally, any beliefs that didn’t cause noticeable harm to an organism weren’t correlated with harm, and thus were more likely to be correct (i.e. keep using whatever works and don’t fix what ain’t broke).  However, once we started adding many more beliefs to our repertoire, specifically those that didn’t directly affect our survival (including many beliefs in the supernatural), the same cognitive rules and heuristics were still being applied as before, although these new types of beliefs (when false) haven’t been naturally selected against, because they haven’t been detrimental enough to our survival (at least not yet, or not enough to force a significant evolutionary change).  So once again, evolution may have produced this bias for very advantageous reasons, but it is a sub-optimal heuristic (as always) and one that has become a significant liability after we started evolving culturally as well.

Another related cognitive bias, and one that is quite well established, is the overconfidence effect, whereby a person’s subjective confidence level or feeling of confidence in his or her judgements or beliefs are predictably higher than the actual objective accuracy of those judgements and beliefs. In a nutshell, people tend to have far more confidence in their beliefs and decisions than is warranted.  A common example cited to illustrate the intensity of this bias pertains to people taking certain quizzes, claiming to be “99% certain” about their answers to certain questions, and then finding out afterwards that they were wrong about half of the time.  In other cases, this overconfidence effect can be even worse.

In a sense, the feeling of certainty is like an emotion, which, like our other emotions, occur as a natural reflex, regardless of the cause, and independently of reason.  Just like other emotions such as anger, pleasure, or fear, the feeling of certainty can be produced by a seizure, certain drugs, and even electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain.  In all of these cases, even when no particular beliefs are being thought about, the brain can produce a feeling of certainty nevertheless.  Research has shown that the feeling of knowing or certainty can also be induced through various brain washing and trance-inducing techniques such as a high repetition of words, rhythmic music, sleep deprivation (or fasting), and other types of social/emotional manipulation.  It is hardly a coincidence that many religions often employ a number of these techniques within their repertoire.

The most important point to take away from learning about these “confidence/certainty” biases is to understand that the feeling of certainty is not a reliable way of determining the accuracy of one’s beliefs.  Furthermore, one must realize that no matter how certain we may feel about a particular belief, we could be wrong, and often times are.  Dogmatic belief systems such as those found in many religions are often propagated by a misleading and mistaken feeling of certainty, even if that feeling is more potent than any ever experienced before.  Often times when people ascribing to these dogmatic belief systems are questioned about the lack of empirical evidence supporting their beliefs, even if all of their arguments have been refuted, they simply reply by saying “I just know.”  Irrational, and entirely unjustified responses like these illustrate the dire need for people to become aware of just how fallible their feeling of certainty can be.

Escalation of Commitment

If a person has invested their whole lives in some belief system, even if they encounter undeniable evidence that their beliefs were wrong, they are more likely to ignore it or rationalize it away than to modify their beliefs, and thus they will likely continue investing more time and energy in those false beliefs.  This is due to an effect known as escalation of commitment.  Basically, the higher the cumulative investment in a particular course of action, the more likely someone will feel justified in continuing to increase that investment, despite new evidence showing them that they’d be better off abandoning that investment and cutting their losses.  When it comes to trying to “convert” a dogmatic believer into a more rational, free thinker, this irrational tendency severely impedes any chance of success, more so when that person has been investing themselves in the dogma for a longer period of time, since they ultimately have a lot more to lose.  To put it another way, a person’s religion is often a huge part of their personal identity, so regardless of any undeniable evidence presented that refutes their beliefs, in order to accept that evidence they will have to abandon a large part of themselves which is obviously going to make that acceptance and intellectual honesty quite difficult to implement.  Furthermore, if a person’s family or friends have all invested in the same false beliefs as themselves, even if that person discovers that those beliefs are wrong, they risk their entire family and/or friends rejecting them and then forever losing those relationships that are dearest to them.  We can also see how this escalation of commitment is further reinforced by the time equals truth fallacy mentioned earlier.

Negativity Bias

When I’ve heard various Christians proselytizing to myself or others, one tactic that I’ve seen used over and over again is the use of fear-mongering with theologically based threats of eternal punishment and torture.  If we don’t convert, we’re told, we’re doomed to burn in hell for eternity.  Their incessant use of this tactic suggests that it was likely effective on themselves contributing to their own conversion (it was in fact one of the reasons for my former conversion to Christianity).  Similar tactics have been used in some political campaigns in order to persuade voters by deliberately scaring them into taking one position over another.  Though this strategy is more effective on some than others, there is an underlying cognitive bias in all of us that contributes to its efficacy.  This is known as the negativity bias.  With this bias, information or experiences that are of a more negative nature will tend to have a greater effect on our psychological states and resulting behavior when compared to positive information or experiences that are equally intense.

People will remember threats to their well-being a lot more than they remember pleasurable experiences.  This looks like another example of a simple survival strategy implemented in our brains.  Similar to my earlier hypothesis regarding the time equals truth heuristic, it is far more important to remember and avoid dangerous or life-threatening experiences than it is to remember and seek out pleasurable experiences when all else is equal.  It only takes one bad experience to end a person’s life, whereas it is less critical to experience some minimum number of pleasurable experiences.  Therefore, it makes sense as an evolutionary strategy to allocate more cognitive resources and memory for avoiding the dangerous and negative experiences, and a negativity bias helps us to accomplish that.

Unfortunately, just as with the time equals truth bias, since our cultural evolution has involved us adopting certain beliefs that no longer pertain directly to our survival, the heuristic is often being executed improperly or in the wrong context.  This increases the chances that we will fall prey to adopting irrational, dogmatic belief systems when they are presented to us in a way that utilizes fear-mongering and various forms of threats to our well-being.  When it comes to conceiving of an overtly negative threat, can anyone imagine one more significant than the threat of eternal torture?  It is, by definition, supposed to be the worst scenario imaginable, and thus it is the most effective kind of threat to play on our negativity bias, and lead to irrational beliefs.  If the dogmatic believer is also convinced that their god can hear their thoughts, they’re also far less likely to think about their dogmatic beliefs critically, for they have no mental privacy to do so.

This bias in particular reminds me of Blaise Pascal’s famous Wager, which basically asserts that it is better to believe in God than to risk the consequences of not doing so.  If God doesn’t exist, we have “only” a finite loss (according to Pascal).  If God does exist, then one’s belief leads to an eternal reward, and one’s disbelief leads to an eternal punishment.  Therefore, it is only logical (Pascal asserts) that one should believe in God, since it is the safest position to adopt.  Unfortunately, Pascal’s premises are not sound, and therefore the conclusion is invalid.  For one, is belief in God sufficient enough to avoid the supposed eternal punishment, or does it have to be more than that, such as some other religious tenets, declarations, or rituals?  Second, which god should one believe in?  There have been thousands of gods proposed by various believers over several millennia, and there were obviously many more than we currently have records of in history, therefore Pascal’s Wager merely narrows it down to a choice of several thousand known gods.  Third, even if we didn’t have to worry about choosing the correct god, if it turned out that there was no god, would a life with that belief not have carried a significant cost?  If the belief also involved a host of dogmatic moral prescriptions, rituals, and other specific ways to live one’s life, etc., including perhaps the requirement to abstain from many pleasurable human experiences, this cost could be quite great.  Furthermore, if one applies Pascal’s wager to any number of theoretical possibilities that posit a possible infinite loss over a finite loss, one would be inclined to apply the same principle to any of those possibilities, which is obviously irrational.  It is clear that Pascal hadn’t thought this one through very well, and I wouldn’t doubt that his judgement during this apologetic formulation was highly clouded by his own negativity bias (since the fear of punishment seems to be the primary focus of his “wager”).  As was mentioned earlier, we can see how effective this bias has been on a number of religious converts, and we need to be diligent about watching out for information that is presented to us with threatening strings attached, because it can easily cloud our judgement and lead to the adoption of irrational beliefs and dogma.

Belief Bias & Argument Proximity Effects

When we analyze arguments, we often judge the strength of those arguments based on how plausible their conclusion is, rather than how well those arguments support that conclusion.  In other words, people tend to focus their attention on the conclusion of an argument, and if they think that the conclusion is likely to be true (based on their prior beliefs), this affects their perspective of how strong or weak the arguments themselves appear to be.  This is obviously an incorrect way to analyze arguments, as within logic, only the arguments themselves can be used to determine the validity of the conclusion, not the other way around.  This implies that what is intuitive to us is often incorrect, and thus our cognitive biases are constantly at odds with logic and rationality.  This is why it takes a lot of practice to learn how to apply logic effectively in one’s thinking.  It just doesn’t come naturally, even though we often think it does.

Another cognitive deficit regarding how people analyze arguments irrationally is what I like to call the argument proximity effect.  Basically, when strong arguments are presented along with weak arguments that support a particular conclusion, the strong arguments will often appear to be weaker or less persuasive because of their proximity or association with the weaker ones.  This is partly due to the fact that if a person thinks that they can defeat the moderate or weak arguments, they will often believe that they can also defeat the stronger argument, if only they were given enough time to do so.  It is as if the strong arguments become “tainted” by the weaker ones, even though the opposite is true since the arguments are independent of one another.  That is, when a person has a number of arguments to support their position, a combination of strong and weak arguments is always better than only having the strong arguments, because there are simply more arguments that need to be addressed and rebutted in the former than in the latter.  Another reason for this effect is that the presence of weak arguments also weakens the credibility of the person presenting them, and so then the stronger arguments aren’t taken as seriously by the recipient.  Just as with our belief bias, this cognitive deficit is ultimately caused by not employing logic properly, if at all.  Making people aware of this cognitive flaw is only half the battle, as once again we also need to learn about logic and how to apply it effectively in our thinking.

To read part 3 of 3, click here.

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