I used to think humans were rational creatures. But that was when I was young and naive. The more I’ve read about humanity–and perhaps more aptly, the more I’ve interacted with humanity–the more I’ve realized that we are deeply irrational beings. And who could blame us? Laptops are outdated and useless after six months. Meanwhile our hardware (the brain) hasn’t changed in 30,000 years. And frankly, our primordial brains didn’t care what was true and what was false. All that mattered was survival. If you hear some rustling in the bushes, there may not be time to conduct a thorough, double-blind study to determine if there is in fact a tiger hiding in the brush. Instead you should just run. And that panicky brain that told us to run then is the same brain that interprets the world for us now. Perceiving things objectively is not its strong suit. In fact, there are a number of cognitive biases that distort our reality in ways unimaginable. These are especially apparent in the realm of politics, where we seem to have given up on the idea of “truth”. Below are five cognitive biases that play a key role in our polarized society.
1. Confirmation Bias
This is far and away the most pernicious bias, and yet one that allow us to maintain our sanity and even save some brain power. The reality is that our world is an incredibly complex place, one that is infinitely difficult to understand in its entirety. Thus it makes life a hell of a lot easier if we simply look for things that confirm whatever we already believe. That way we don’t have to go through that painful process of cognitive dissonance and try to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Finding the truth is exhausting work. Who would want to do that? Instead, simply decide something is true and then seek out all the bits of data that will help you prove it. The earth is flat, Communism never hurt anyone, man never landed on the moon, and so on. There’s enough information out there to prove just about anything, if you’re willing to ignore the information that clearly disproves your assumption.
2. Backfire Effect
I spent a couple years of my life in the “Atheist Army”. Anyone who’s gone through the militant atheist phase knows this bias well. Often you will encounter people who are religious. And often you will find yourself arguing with them, because you just can’t help yourself. What you will find is that attacking their beliefs, aggressively interrogating their logic and bombarding them with its flaws, will only cause them to dig in deeper. That’s the Backfire Effect. Tell someone something that goes against their belief, and they will simply believe it even more. Again, it is far easier to maintain whatever belief you already hold then to go through the near unbearable process of letting one part of your identity go and creating a new one.
Anchoring is the tendency for humans to zero in on one piece of information and cling to that like Jack clung to that wooden panel in the Titanic (until they die, that is). Generally the information that we cling to is the first piece of information that we acquire. That’s why this bias is useful in negotiating, and why you should always start high (if you’re selling). But in politics—and especially in the era of Fake News—anchoring is incredibly dangerous. It’s what allows people to believe that Obama is a Muslim and Trump mocked someone for their disability. Neither of these things are true, and yet some of you probably think they are. It’s okay. You’re not alone. I find it useful to distrust everything you read until it’s corroborated.
4. Bandwagon Effect
This is the tendency to believe something because everyone else believes it, otherwise referred to as groupthink. Few things historically are as dangerous as group think. Take the Nazis, for example. The people who willfully carried our Hitler’s orders, who committed atrocities beyond what some can even comprehend–they were just ordinary people. Fundamentally, there is nothing that separates a Nazi from you or from me. We, if put into the same circumstances, are equally at risk of becoming our worst selves, of doing things we might not believe we’re capable of. And it is easy to justify such behavior if you look around and see that everyone else is doing it too. “Everyone is throwing Jews into gas chambers, so I guess it’s okay,” said the Nazis. It’s easy for us now to look back at the people who helped usher such suffering into the world and consider them evil. What they did is evil, but what they are is human. That’s why it’s important to think for yourself and not allow yourself to become a sheep for whatever the foolish majority has made up it’s mind about. They have been wrong time and time again, and sometimes their wrongness has led to the suffering of millions.
5. Group Attribution Error
This is the tendency to take the attributes of an individual, or number of individuals in a group, and then apply that attribute the the group as a whole. It’s similar to stereotyping, and we see it all the time. Hard leftists think all Republicans are racists. Hard right-wingers think all Democrats are wacko communists. Everyone at Occupy Wall Street is stupid and doesn’t have a job. Everyone in the Tea Party doesn’t care about poor people or immigrants. Similar to the other biases, it’s simply easier to think this way. It helps motivate us if there is an enemy, and it helps us understand a group by creating a 2D characterization of them. The media loves this. Don’t fall for it. People are not 2D caricatures, they are three-dimesional beings. There is always more to a person than meets the eye.
I make note of all of these biases because they affect every human being, myself included. Being aware of them helps makes it easier to mitigate their affects. If you know you are at a high risk of confirmation bias in a particular subject, deliberately research opposing viewpoints. If you find yourself reactively defending your pre-held position, ask yourself if it’s because you truly believe it, or because it’s too painful to let it go. If you find yourself making gross generalizations about a group, ask yourself if it’s in any way founded in recorded statistics of that group. In short, always be aware of your mind’s proclivity to misinform you. As Norman Vincent Peale once said, “You subconscious is in a sense the greatest liar you know.” Don’t let it deceive you.