Have you have ever been in a discussion where someone is trying to convince you of something you know is not correct, and no matter how much proof you can offer they refuse to change their mind? Perhaps you believe that all people who have tattoos and wear leather are in a biker gang. Our brains pick and choose our opinions, even if they may not be logical, or factual. This is known as confirmation bias, the mind’s tendency to find a reason to confirm our preconceived notions.
Psychologists have been documenting for decades the flaws in our thinking that form confirmation bias. Everything we do, from our choice of music to our political agenda is clouded by all sorts of strange logic that affect the way we form our opinions and make decisions.
Most people believe that we form our opinions and decisions based on clear logic and complex problem solving. According to two researchers, Hugo Mercier at the University of NeuchÃ¢tel, Switzerland, and Dan Sperber at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, human reasoning helps us to argue.
As our communication skills advanced it may have been in our ancestors’ best interest to be able to argue convincingly. Often the most persuasive lines of reasoning are not always the most logical. Perhaps our brains need to justify our actions, or convince others to see things from our point of view – right or wrong. “You end up making decisions that look rational, rather than making genuinely rational decisions,” says Mercier.
“When we go looking for a particular response we are most likely to find it,” says Mercier. This is a positive test strategy, and some groups use this strategy to arrive at the answers they want to get (take political polls, for instance). On the other hand, we could be duped by others who are using their own preconceived notions to convince others that something that may, or may not be true, in order to change your opinion. You then develop a healthy skepticism, and are more careful about changing your opinion without learning more.
If you notice, people really like to argue, especially when it means they can change someone else’s mind. This ability to argue back and forth may have been crucial to humanity’s success – allowing us to come to extraordinary solutions as a group that we could never reach alone. It is what allows us to manage a complex social structure, and is excellent for keeping the brain active.
“Providing and evaluating reasons is fundamental to the success of human communication,” says Sperber, who has spent years considering the ways an argumentative mind might ease our way through the “bottleneck of distrust,” as he calls it. A healthy skepticism would have been essential, which would lead us to more critical thought. Of equal benefit, however, would have been an ability to persuade others and justify our point of view with the most convincing arguments.
It was Mercier who began to wonder whether this need to sway other people’s opinions might explain some of our own biases and skew our logic, but could also give us the edge when arguing our opinions.
A good example is how we view politicians. The candidate we choose to support we find evidence as to what makes their ideas better because they are closer to those we carry. In doing so we ignore all the virtues the other candidate possesses, and find fault with everything they do because it doesn’t agree with your opinions. It doesn’t make any difference to you whether your candidate has skewed statistics, or even lied about his/her qualifications and any amount of evidence will not change your opinion.
Such a bias looks like a definite character flaw if we solve problems in such a partisan way. “You won’t waste time searching out evidence that doesn’t support your case, and you’ll home in on evidence that does,” says Mercier.
Mercier and Sperber offer a similar explanation for the “attraction effect” – when faced with a choice between different options, irrelevant alternatives can sway our judgment from the logical choice. One example would be that you are presented with photos of two women. Once is an attractive, slim woman with a warm smile. The other is also attractive and smiling, but slightly overweight. The majority of people would think the slim woman was smarter and would make a better employee than the overweight woman. When presented with credentials of the two, the overweight woman is better educated, had better grades in school, and contributes to many charity organizations, while the slim woman only had a high school GED and does not outside charity work. Many employers would still choose the slim woman over the overweight one.
This just goes to show that our preconceived notions carry over into forming opinions, even when logic would dictate the conclusions are not logical. “We believe that our intelligence makes us wise when it actually makes us more susceptible to foolishness,” says Sternberg. If we could learn to hold back on forming judgments without first doing research we could escape the pitfalls that put us in danger of making big and costly mistakes.
About the author:
Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at BrainAthlete.com.
New Scientist – The argumentative ape: Why we’re wired to persuade : http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428661.200-the-argumentative-ape-why-were-wired-to-persuade.html?full=true