The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

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

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

Reactive Devaluation

Studies have shown that if a claim is believed to have come from a friend or ally, the person receiving it will be more likely to think that it has merit and is truthful.  Likewise, if it is believed to have come from an enemy or some member of the opposition, it is significantly devalued.  This bias is known as reactive devaluation.  A few psychologists actually determined that the likeabillity of the source of the message is one of the key factors involved with this effect, and people will actually value information coming from a likeable source more than a source they don’t like, with the same order of magnitude that they would value information coming from an expert versus a non-expert.  This is quite troubling.  We’ve often heard about how political campaigns and certain debates are seen more as popularity contests than anything else, and this bias is likely a primary reason for why this is often the case.

Unfortunately, a large part of society has painted a nasty picture of atheism, skepticism, and the like.  As it turns out, people who do not believe in a god (mainly the Christian god) are the least trusted minority in America, according to a sociological study performed a few years ago (Johanna Olexy and Lee Herring, “Atheists Are Distrusted: Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to Sociological Study,” American Sociological Association News, May 3, 2006).  Regarding the fight against dogmatism, the rational thinker needs to carefully consider how they can improve their likeability to the recipients of their message, if nothing else, by going above and beyond to remain kind, respectful, and maintain a positive and uplifting attitude during their argument presentation.  In any case, the person arguing will always be up against any societal expectations and preferences that may reduce that person’s likeability, so there’s also a need to remind others as well as ourselves about what is most important when discussing an issue — the message rather than the messenger.

The Backfire Effect & Psychological Reactance

There have already been several cognitive biases mentioned that interfere with people’s abilities to accept new evidence that contradicts their beliefs.  To make matters worse, psychologists have discovered that people often react to disconfirming evidence by actually strengthening their beliefs.  This is referred to as the backfire effect.  This can make refutations futile most of the time, but there are some strategies that help to combat this bias.  The bias is largely exacerbated by a person’s emotional involvement and the fact that people don’t want to appear to be unintelligent or incorrect in front of others.  If the debating parties let tempers cool down before resuming the debate, this can be quite helpful regarding the emotional element.  Additionally, if a person can show their opponent how accepting the disconfirming evidence will benefit them, they’ll be more likely to accept it.  There are times when some of the disconfirming evidence mentioned is at least partially absorbed by the person, and they just need some more time in a less tense environment to think things over a bit.  If the situation gets too heated, or if a person risks losing face with peers around them, the ability to persuade that person only decreases.

Another similar cognitive bias is referred to as reactance, which is basically a motivational reaction to instances of perceived infringement of behavioral freedoms.  That is, if a person feels that someone is taking away their choices or limiting the number of them, such as in cases where they are being heavily pressured into accepting a different point of view, they will often respond defensively.  They may feel that freedoms are being taken away from them, and it is only natural for a person to defend whatever freedoms they see themselves having or potentially losing.  Whenever one uses reverse psychology, they are in fact playing on at least an implicit knowledge of this reactance effect.  Does this mean that rational thinkers should use reverse psychology to persuade dogmatists to accept reason and evidence?  I personally don’t think that this is the right approach because this could also backfire and I would prefer to be honest and straightforward, even if this results in less efficacy.  At the very least however, one needs to be aware of this bias and needs to be careful with how they phrase their arguments, how they present the evidence, and to maintain a calm and respectful attitude during these discussions, so that the other person doesn’t feel the need to defend themselves with the cost of ignoring evidence.

Pareidolia & Other Perceptual Illusions

Have you ever seen faces of animals or people while looking at clouds, shadows, or other similar situations?  The brain has many pattern recognition modules and will often respond erroneously to vague or even random stimuli, such that we perceive something familiar, even when it isn’t actually there.  This is called pareidolia, and is a type of apophenia (i.e. seeing patterns in random data).  Not surprisingly, many people have reported instances of seeing various religious imagery and so forth, most notably the faces of prominent religious figures, from ordinary phenomena.  People have also erroneously heard “hidden messages” in records when playing them in reverse, and similar illusory perceptions.  This results from the fact that the brain often fills in gaps and if one expects to see a pattern (even if unconsciously driven by some emotional significance), then the brain’s pattern recognition modules can often “over-detect” or result in false positives by too much sensitivity and by conflating unconscious imagery with one’s actual sensory experiences, leading to a lot of distorted perceptions.  It goes without saying that this cognitive bias is perfect for reinforcing superstitious or supernatural beliefs, because what people tend to see or experience from this effect are those things that are most emotionally significant to them.  After it occurs, people believe that what they saw or heard must have been real and therefore significant.

Most people are aware that hallucinations occur in some people from time to time, under certain neurological conditions (generally caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters).  A bias like pareidolia can effectively produce similar experiences, but without requiring the more specific neurological conditions that a textbook hallucination requires.  That is, the brain doesn’t need to be in any drug-induced state nor does it need to be physically abnormal in any way for this to occur, making it much more common than hallucinations.  Since pareidolia is also compounded with one’s confirmation bias, and since the brain is constantly implementing cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms in the background (as mentioned earlier), this can also result in groups of people having the same illusory experience, specifically if the group shares the same unconscious emotional motivations for “seeing” or experiencing something in particular.  These circumstances along with the power of suggestion from even just one member of the group can lead to what are known as collective hallucinations.  Since collective hallucinations like these inevitably lead to a feeling of corroboration and confirmation between the various people experiencing it (say, seeing a “spirit” or “ghost” of someone significant), they can reinforce one another’s beliefs, despite the fact that the experience was based on a cognitive illusion largely induced by powerful human emotions.  It’s likely no coincidence that this type of group phenomenon seems to only occur with members of a religion or cult, specifically those that are in a highly emotional and synchronized psychological state.  There have been many cases of large groups of people from various religions around the world claiming to see some prominent religious figure or other supernatural being, illustrating just how universal this phenomena is within a highly emotional group context.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

There is a cognitive bias that is somewhat related to the aforementioned perceptual illusion biases which is known as hyperactive agency detection.  This bias refers to our tendency to erroneously assign agency to events that happen without an agent causing them.  Human beings all have a theory of mind that is based in part on detecting agency, where we assume that other people are causal agents in the sense that they have intentions and goals just like we do.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that our ability to recognize that others are intentional agents allows us to better predict another person’s behavior which is extremely beneficial to our survival (notably in cases where we suspect others are intending to harm us).

Unfortunately our brain’s ability to detect agency is hyperactive in that it errs on the side of caution by over-detecting possible agency, as opposed to under-detecting (which could negatively affect our survival prospects).  As a result, people will often ascribe agency to things and events in nature that have no underlying intentional agent.  For example, people often anthropomorphize (or implicitly assume agency to) machines and get angry when they don’t work properly (such as an automobile that breaks down while driving to work), often with the feeling that the machine is “out to get us”, is “evil”, etc.  Most of the time, if we have feelings like this, they are immediately checked and balanced by our rational minds that remind us that “it’s only a car”, or “it’s not conscious”, etc.  Similarly, when natural disasters or other similar events occur, our hyperactive agency detection snaps into gear, trying to find “someone to blame”.  This cognitive bias explains quite well, at least as a contributing factor as to why so many ancient cultures assumed that there were gods that caused earthquakes, lightning, thunder, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.  Quite simply, they needed to ascribe the events as having been caused by someone.

Likewise, if we are walking in a forest and hear some strange sounds in the bushes, we may often assume that some intentional agent is present (whether another person or other animal), even though it may simply be the wind that is causing the noise.  Once again, we can see in this case the evolutionary benefit of this agency detection, even with the occasional “false positive”, the noise in the bushes could very well be a predator or other source of danger, so it is usually better for our brains to assume that the noise is coming from an intentional agent.  It’s also entirely possible that even in cases where the source of sound was determined to be the wind, early cultures may have ascribed an intentional stance to the wind itself (e.g. a “wind” god, etc.).  In all of these cases, we can see how our hyperactive agency detection can lead to irrational, theistic and other supernatural belief systems, and we need to be aware of such a bias when evaluating our intuitions of how the world works.

Risk Compensation

It is only natural that the more a person feels protected from various harms, the less careful they tend to behave, and vice versa.  This apparent tendency, sometimes referred to as risk compensation, is often a harmless approach because generally speaking, if one is well protected from harm, they do have less to worry about than one who is not, and thus they can take greater relative risks as a result of that larger cushion of safety.  Where this tends to cause a problem however, is in cases when the perceived level of protection is far higher than it actually is.  The worst case scenario that comes to mind is if a person that appeals to the supernatural thinks that it doesn’t matter what happens to them or that no harm can come to them because of some belief in a supernatural source of protection, let alone one that they believe provides the most protection possible.  In this scenario, their level of risk compensation is fully biased to a negative extreme, and they will be more likely to behave irresponsibly because they don’t have realistic expectations of the consequences of their actions.  In a post-enlightenment society, we’ve acquired a higher responsibility to heed the knowledge gained from scientific discoveries so that we can behave more rationally as we learn more about the consequences of our actions.

It’s not at all difficult to see how the effects of various religious dogma on one’s level of risk compensation can inhibit that society from making rational, responsible decisions.  We have several serious issues plaguing modern society including those related to environmental sustainability, climate change, pollution, war, etc.  If believers in the supernatural have an attitude that everything is “in God’s hands” or that “everything will be okay” because of their belief in a protective god, they are far less likely to take these kinds of issues seriously because they fail to acknowledge the obvious harm on everyone in society.  What’s worse is that not only are dogmatists reducing their own safety, but they’re also reducing the safety of their children, and of everyone else in society that is trying to behave rationally with realistic expectations.  If we had two planets, one for rational thinkers, and one for dogmatists, this would no longer be a problem for everyone.  The reality is that we share one planet and thus we all suffer the consequences of any one person’s irresponsible actions.  If we want to make more rational decisions, especially those related to the safety of our planet’s environment, society, and posterity, people need to adjust their risk compensation such that it is based on empirical evidence using a rational, proven scientific methodology.  This point clearly illustrates the need to phase out supernatural beliefs since false beliefs that don’t correspond with reality can be quite dangerous to everybody regardless of who carries the beliefs.  In any case, when one is faced with the choice between knowledge versus ignorance, history has demonstrated which choice is best.

Final thoughts

The fact that we are living in an information age with increasing global connectivity, and the fact that we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, will likely help to combat the ill effects of these cognitive biases.  These factors are making it increasingly difficult to hide one’s self from the evidence and the proven efficacy of using the scientific method in order to form accurate beliefs regarding the world around us.  Societal expectations are also changing as a result of these factors, and it is becoming less and less socially acceptable to be irrational, dogmatic, and to not take scientific methodology more seriously.  In all of these cases, having knowledge about these cognitive biases will help people to combat them.  Even if we can’t eliminate the biases, we can safeguard ourselves by preparing for any potential ill effects that those biases may produce.  This is where reason and science come into play, providing us with the means to counter our cognitive biases by applying a rational skepticism to all of our beliefs, and by using a logical and reliable methodology based on empirical evidence to arrive at a belief that we can be justifiably confident (though never certain) in.  As Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”  Science has constantly been ratcheting our way toward a better understanding of the universe we live in, despite the fact that the results we obtain from science are often at odds with our own intuitions about how we think the world is.  Only relatively recently has science started to provide us with information regarding why our intuitions are often at odds with the scientific evidence.

We’ve made huge leaps within neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology, and these discoveries are giving us the antidote that we need in order to reduce or eliminate irrational and dogmatic thinking.  Furthermore, those that study logic have an additional advantage in that they are more likely to spot fallacious arguments that are used to support this or that belief, and thus they are less likely to be tricked or persuaded by arguments that often appear to be sound and strong, but actually aren’t.  People fall prey to fallacious arguments all the time, and it is mostly because they haven’t learned how to spot them (which courses in logic and other reasoning can help to mitigate).  Thus, overall I believe it is imperative that we integrate knowledge concerning our cognitive biases into our children’s educational curriculum, starting at a young age (in a format that is understandable and engaging of course).  My hope is that if we start to integrate cognitive education (and complementary courses in logic and reasoning) as a part of our foundational education curriculum, we will see a cascade effect of positive benefits that will guide our society more safely into the future.

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