DO WE BELIEVE THE TRUTH?
Or Do We Believe Our Beliefs?
H B Gelatt
We prefer to believe what we prefer to be true. Francis bacon
Do you believe that what you believe is true? The answer is probably yes because that is the definition of belief (“something believed or accepted as true”). Are you absolutely certain that what you believe is true? Or do you have some doubt about your beliefs, some uncertainty? Part of our unreliable subjectivity and one of the biggest barriers to objectivity and truth is our belief biases. Over 70 belief biases have been identified but a common one and one of the most powerful is called the confirmation bias, one that favors our own beliefs.
Confirmation bias leads us to gather and favor information that supports our existing beliefs. It is a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way. It involves not only a biased search for information, but also a biased interpretation of information and a biased memory. “Wishful thinking” and “selective recall” are terms used to describe these tendencies. Sometimes we think we are gathering information when we are actually fishing for support. And sometimes the evidence we use to support our belief is the result of the belief, not the cause. The confirmation bias exists in all of us and is difficult, maybe impossible, to completely erase.
The first step in dealing with this bias is to acknowledge its existence. Yes, you and I both possess the confirmation bias and it is significant. If we could acknowledge its significance, we might be more likely to become aware of its existence, and then try to neutralize it. But we are not the only ones afflicted with the confirmation bias. Because it is easier to see this bias in others than it is to see in us, let’s look elsewhere.
A first look at politics. Any democrat or republican can easily “see” the role of bias in the other party. Politicians only gather and report information that supports their existing beliefs, they proclaim falsehoods, either believing they are true or knowing they are false, to prove their policy; they interpret data and the opinion of others to reinforce their own opinions. It has been demonstrated that political pundits are among those who are most confident, usually not well informed, most likely to be wrong and least likely to change. If there is anyplace where the confirmation bias can be dangerous to this country, it is in politics.
What about religion? The dictionary defines religious faith as “ confident belief in the truth, belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” Some religious doctrines are defined as dogma, authoritative beliefs considered to be absolutely true. This means they come from a fixed mindset — a mind that doesn’t question and isn’t open to change.
Religious believers often confirm their belief with selective evidence. Uncertainty and questioning is not a theme. Religious beliefs can have major worldwide positive or negative consequences, as demonstrated by history.
How about science? The scientific method consists of systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. However, scientists and researchers are sometimes guilty of confirmation bias by setting up experiments or framing or interpreting their data in ways that will tend to confirm their hypothesis. The bias in science has been well known since the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn in 1962. He demonstrated that scientific research depended on the shared priority of the current scientific paradigm — a conceptual framework, a mindset. The bias exists everywhere.
Even in personal decision making. When people decide what job to accept, where to go to college, whom to marry, what to have for breakfast, etc. they are not exempt from belief bias. It is easy to be biased by your preexisting preferences, your first impressions, your cultural indoctrination, your knowledge from limited search for options and your “wishful thinking” and “selective recall”. These restrictions may not be a problem in deciding what to have for breakfast but might be in deciding whom to marry.
I believe the best strategy for combating the confirmation bias, and other belief biases, is to develop a malleable mindset. A malleable mind is helpful in dodging the confirmation bias because of its common practice of open-mindedness.
Characteristics of a Malleable Mind:
- Asks probing, discriminating, broad, open-ended questions
- Asks, “What’s another possibility?”
- Is willing to test assumptions
- Challenges conventional wisdom
- Looks for disagreement
- Earnestly considers the opposite view
- Is receptive to new and different ideas
- Is full of curiosity and doubt
- Curiosity = eager to learn more, unduly inquisitive
- Doubt = undecided, skeptical, lack of certainty
- Looks for a devil’s advocate, seeks feedback from others
- Asks what is the most likely way I could fail to dodge the confirmation bias?
You can’t know yourself by yourself. But you can get better acquainted by investigating with a malleable mind. And because it is easier to see flaws in someone else, you also need to ask others to tell you the way they see the way you see things. Peter Senge says you need a “ruthlessly compassionate partner”. Well, maybe not ruthless, but a partner who knows you well and is honest and compassionate. Tell them what you believe and ask them if they agree.