‘Confirmation Bias’

Our ‘confirmation bias’ tells us that it is easier to believe than to stop believing or not to believe at all.

This attempt to stick to one’s gun, in spite of its irrationality, leads us to ‘confirmation bias’

For centuries now writers have been extolling the human drama, feelings and behaviour through their writings. It has always been a wonder to them: how come people behave so differently, irrationally and paradoxically.

However, as cognitive science is coming of age, as new sophisticated tools are being used to study our mind, a lot of understanding is coming out of lab research.

Students of sociology, neuroscience and psychology will come regularly across the much used expression ‘confirmation bias’, which is ‘a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions’, leading to statistical errors.

It is being found that such bias pertains to all of us humans: part of our forebrain lights up (on X-rays) when we are confronted with old cherished beliefs that confirm our established convictions. Such news boosts up the dopamine – feel-good chemical – of our forebrain. Should we believe in a certain God or deity, we would love meeting people who have similar beliefs. Similarly, we like to watch our heroes in action, be it on the screen or on the playground; and anyone passing derogatory comments against them will do well to stay away. We are starting to understand why it is so difficult to change people, to convert a Manchester United fan into a Liverpool fan; how we are ready to downplay the foul play of our hero, when millions are witnessing live on TV that he is the real culprit.

Fortunately for us, during evolution we have also developed another faculty : that of keeping our mind open to new ideas and conceptions; this process is dealt with in an area of the brain called striatum which also secretes dopamine. That’s how new gadgets, like the latest version of our mobile phone, enthrall us. However, it seems that this striatum dopamine is short-lived; ultimately we fall back on the established home-grown creeds in the forebrain, reverting back to our old love, so to say. This is more evident in case of abstract thinking and concepts. We finally believe that our culture, our ‘truths’, our religion — inculcated, after all, by our ancestors and traditions — are better than that of others. A new God is not welcome, in spite of all the rationale that proves that our own is deficient. In the face of uncertainty of life, we discover that it is an enormous advantage to go on maintaining old beliefs. In modern days atheism may look more logical but our ‘confirmation bias’ tells us that it is easier to believe than to stop believing or not to believe at all. This attempt to stick to one’s gun, in spite of its irrationality, leads us to ‘confirmation bias’

Even people in finance, medicine, politics, science, or law and other professions fall prey to the same psychological forces. Many scientists must guard constantly against this bias, lest they discover that someone else will pick up errors in their research work and accuse them of ‘attitude polarization, belief perseverance or illusory correlation’. If the educated can fall prey to bias, what can we expect of the illiterate?

Now we can understand why some of us ignoramuses would persist in ‘coupe limon and kasse coco’ at some roundabouts to vent off some bad lucks, while others would bomb WHO workers for dispensing polio vaccines.

That’s one of many reasons why we become what we are, and end up having different personalities and idiosyncrasies, and why some of us are ready to go to war for some creeds and beliefs that are frozen in time.

Fortunately, we are on the move, and we are getting better education and scientific culture to help us understand our biases, with the hope that all this will help us evolve better ethics to overcome social conflicts.

Why This Bias?

We may wonder how we acquired that psychological complex. It seems that that ‘bias’ has served our species well during evolution. If we were living some thousands of years ago in the forest; and suddenly we should notice a nearby leafy shrub shaking and moving suspiciously as dusk is setting in, there would be two options opened to us: (a) to believe that there is a marauder or leopard in the bush, ready to spring at our throat, in which case we would be running at breakneck speed, or (b) to take it lightly and write off the possible threat.

In the first option we’ll have 100% chance of saving our skin. Should we take the second one and go to investigate, there is 50% chance that there would be nothing to worry about. But there is that other 50% risk that the danger is real, in which case we would have 50% chance of losing our life. Hence it is preferable to go for the first option, even when the danger is imaginary. So as time went on we persisted in that safety-first principle, even if it is irrational. That’s how we have evolved to think that it is easier and better to believe than not to believe.

Our Senses

Is it possible that we are fooling ourselves at the expense of truth?

Since our birth we have come to rely heavily on our five senses to build our concept of our inner and outer world; they serve us well. So we thought.

Yet, how often have we not sat open-mouthed, looking in awe at a magician as he lured us into his unbelievable world of wonders and prestidigitation? Have we not stared with disbelief, with eyes popping out, as he would throw a thick cloud of colourful confetti on his female assistant, and, lo, immediately she would come out with a totally new dress? She would then walk elegantly behind a screen for five seconds and when she comes out the dress is changed yet again, in style, size and colour. Or the magician would cover her with a spotted cape in front of our very eyes – and, lord bless us, as the cape falls, the lady is seen into a new spotted dress. All this makes our senses go haywire. We are stunned and baffled. It defeats our rationale. We know it cannot be done, yet it is being done under our very nose. Our vision and brain are put under duress and conflict.

Of course, the magician is making use of a highly sophisticated, fine-tuned scientific process; but as we do not know what it is, we prefer to suspend our ‘logic’ temporarily and succumb blissfully to the novelty and the dopamine of the moment.

But if we are clever enough, or if we have a ‘renegade’ magician who would betray the secret of his trade – as on ‘YouTube’ — we may come to know the tricks being practised on us by the magician. And we could end the dissonance that we had found ourselves caught in, maybe between our forebrain and our striatum.

And some cynics have even hinted that a few of our past religious prophets had exploited some magical tricks to impress their disciples; they won on both fronts: they fooled the senses of those disciples and concurrently reinforced their religious ‘confirmation bias’.

If our senses can be so twisted as to destabilize, distort and “virtualize” our reality, is it possible that our psyche can be manipulated (not by a magician!) but by our own biases to do just the opposite: stabilize our ego, integrity and sense of self, at the expense of truth? Maybe.

Dr Rajagopala Soondron

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