In this post I go over some biases and influences that we encounter that can interfere with our ability to form well reasoned opinions. As my first post, I feel it’s important to show how I was affected by them and how I eventually was led towards free thought.
Bias is a personal inclination, feeling or opinion – usually not reasoned out – that interferes with obtaining the truth. As far as how we process information concerning ourselves and the world around us, psychologists have identified numerous cognitive biases, but none are more important than confirmation bias. It essentially says that we confirm a hypothesis or belief about something by looking for evidence to support it and discarding that which does not support it. This bias makes our beliefs and hypotheses very resistant to change. A good example of a confirmation bias is if I was convinced that prayer will assist me in getting an interview, and I counted all the times that I got an interview with prayer but ignored the interviews I got without prayer. In other words, as you may have heard before, we count the hits but ignore the misses. The remedy is, in addition to proving our beliefs, that we should always be trying to falsify our beliefs, in this case proving that you’d get an interview without prayer. Moreover, you need to be cautious of the correlation fallacy; that is, just because an interview was obtained when you prayed, it doesn’t mean the prayer caused the interview. You must either look for other explanations (hypotheses) as to why you got that interview or admit falling prey to confirmation bias. [Once you take all that into consideration, and you are still convinced that prayer is the causal factor, see my discussion on Miracles and Probability I, II, and III.]
There is an even more hideous offender to the truth, specifically ingroup bias. Once we are affiliated with a certain ideology, we then frequently inherit the beliefs and preferences of that ingroup. And once we are in an ingroup, we often, unconsciously, argue in favor of that group’s positions. In fact, the supporting of other member’s ideas in our ingroup can be so dysfunctional that a phenomenon known as groupthink can occur. Groupthink is when uniformity in the group’s decisions is elevated at the cost of rational thinking. Examples of groupthink are abound – from the Bay of Pigs invasion to simple meetings at work. To illustrate, think of a meeting at work where you had a good idea but failed to mention it because you know it wouldn’t be well received by influential others. That is a classic example of how groups can be forced into making poor decisions, mainly by refusing anything that’s contrary to the group’s opinion, typically articulated by the higher ranking or more well-liked individuals.
Prior to being educated in the necessary fields, such as economics, history and logic, I personally was affected by the conservative movement ingroup. I started my political career out by listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The result was disastrous. I became a staunch, conservative zealot. I recall that the hate for liberals spewed by these pundits was contagious, and I used to call my teachers liberals with a contemptuous tone. I reverberated a tribal instinct with an “us” against “them” mentality. I inherited all of their assumptions, arguments and preferences as well. So, for example, I equated government and government intervention as bad, gun control as the government trying to take our guns away, Christians as founding our nation, unbridled pride as something to be cherished, protesting against war as wrong, protecting the environment as unnecessary, and, finally, welfare means doing a person harm and one should practice tough-love in its stead.
So what explains this? For our ancestors, evolutionary psychologists believe that there was survival value in group members demonstrating uniformity and favoritism, while showing prejudice towards outsiders. This conformity would allow for cohesion and cooperation in order to meet similar ends. According to the logic of evolution, if a behavior occurs frequently enough in a high enough percentage of the population, then it’s a good candidate for being an adaptation. If it’s an adaptation, then it’s probably hard-wired into our psychology. So once we are in an ingroup, it comes quite natural for us to adopt their beliefs and fight for their cause, while shunning outsiders. The consequences are clear, and we end up forming conclusions without any forethought. We kind of just back into these beliefs as Michael Shermer says and then defend them at all costs. I recall watching a debate with Dr. Richard Carrier and Michael Licona, and they were perplexed at how they arrived at different conclusions as to whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I have often wondered how each ingroup they were associated with contributed to their conclusions.
Cognitive dissonance is an uneasy feeling that one gets when there is a contradiction between a deep-seated belief and another opposing belief. It’s not a cognitive bias in it of itself, but it nonetheless assists people in maintaining erroneous views. I felt this dissonance myself when I was a diehard fan of evolutionary psychology. To recall a specific incident, I was listening to a debate between Stephen Pinker and Steven Rose on whether or not the brain was designed as a general problem solving tool or a domain specific problem solving tool. I had so much invested into evolutionary psychology – countless hours of reading it and using it as an explanatory tool to understand the hardships of life – that I was vulnerable. It was perfect, sacred and infallible to me. Because the tenet and pillar of evolutionary psychology is that the mind is a Swiss army knife that is filled with individual tools to solve specific problems at hand, I couldn’t imagine the mind being anything else. Sounds frivolous, but I fought for days to resist thinking that it may be true. Although I don’t know evolutionary psychology’s official stance today, ten years later I’ve conceded that it could be both, with the help of “Adapting Minds” by Buller.
A worldview is a framework of beliefs that allows us to make judgments and decisions about our environment. So not only do beliefs function as cohesive and cooperative mechanisms in groups, they also serve to pragmatically guide us throughout the day. My system of beliefs and values that I had when I worshiped evolutionary psychology constituted a worldview. This worldview allowed me to make sense out of a lot of things in life. However, I was too emotionally entrenched in it, and it was perhaps acting as a distorter of truth by not allowing other more plausible explanations for phenomena. I haven’t abandoned evolutionary psychology; I’m just no longer holding on to it so tightly. I have since reassessed what’s worth holding on to and that so happens to be principles relating to relationships, civics, justice etc. Moreover, I try to now be independent as much as possible, rarely adhering to an ideology. By not adhering to an ideology you are not as liable to be indoctrinated with inflexible assumptions and beliefs that don’t work for every problem. For example, becoming a libertarian forces you to believe that government intervention will most always result in an undesirable outcome, but this may not always be the case. Problems need to be looked at individually, free from dogma.
So we see the disadvantages of affiliating with an ingroup and holding on to beliefs too strongly. But it’s impossible to not have some sort of worldview. As Michael Shermer expounds, we are meaning making machines and demand an interpretive framework to understand the world and humans around us. We can’t function without beliefs, assumptions and values. But that’s not to say that one group doesn’t hold a better set of heuristics that minimizes these biases over another. I believe that philosophical point of view to be found in free thought. It’s less likely to be plagued by bias since its very nature is to be skeptical of it in the first place. The following definition of it is most applicable. Since free thought relies on empiricism like science does, then an assumption or hypothesis can be disputed and discarded. By contrast, an ideology or religion has undisputed truths that would probably never be overturned.
Free thought — is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”. Freethinkers are heavily committed to the use of scientific inquiry, and logic. The skeptical application of science implies freedom from the intellectually limiting effects of confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, or sectarianism.