How always being right makes you dumber

September 23, 2015

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It takes a particularly strong person to admit being wrong about something. Not just because it's hard to admit you were wrong but because our brain literally fights against it. Thucydides once wrote...


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It takes a particularly strong person to admit being wrong about something. Not just because it's hard to admit you were wrong but because our brain literally fights against it. Thucydides once wrote of the allies of Athens who foolishly hoped to switch sides in the Peloponnesian War;

for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy
Almost two-thousand years later, Dante is given (and in turn gives us) the saintly advice;
affection for one's own opinion binds, confines the mind
In the 1960's, almost 1000 years after that, psychology caught up, finding that people do indeed tend to try to make the evidence fit the theory instead of testing the theory against the evidence. That researcher's name was Peter Wason, and he named the phenomenon 'confirmation bias' to honour the fact that people prefer to 'confirm' a theory. Wason began something of a flurry of research that resulted in quite a depth of understanding about the topic. Essentially, we are all apt to use information in a manner that will confirm our own beliefs and expectations of the world. We do this in three ways:
  • Selective searching; we will tend to seek out information that will confirm our beliefs. This comes across in the kinds of questions we ask (we'll tend to lead based on what we expect to find) as well how we attend to information in the world.
  • Selective interpretation; as we are gathering our information, we'll tend to favour anything that supports our view and discount anything that goes against it. Essentially, the information we have will get twisted to fit our expectations.
  • Selective recall; once we put the information away, it often comes back out again even more biased than when it went it.

Now, you aren't a jackass (although you may come across as one). It's just your brain trying to shake off any cognitive dissonance, otherwise known as mental conflict, that it comes across (your brain hates that stuff). We tend to do this particularly if the subject touches on our emotions (i.e. is very important to us and feeds our beliefs about the world). These kinds of beliefs are very volatile when challenged because they form part of who we are, and we protect them enthusiastically. So how can we fight it?

  • Make sure it's an important fight. Realistically, you're going to pick people to hang out with that are similar to you so it's not going to be a consistant issue. This bias formed because living in an uncertain world causes all sorts of problems.
  • But, if the alternative to your opinion might change the well-being of the people around you it's a good idea to take a good look and make sure your opinion is right because it's right, and not right because you make it right.
  • If you think your opinion might be harming others, or hampering your opportunities for growth, then the best thing to do is write things down. You'll tend to discount evidence that goes against the grain (to the point where you'll find equally trustworthy evidence less trustworthy [PDF]), but at least this way you won't remember it wrong.
  • Think about taking up meditation. It seems to have quite an effect on many types of bias.
  • Most of all, make sure the information you have coming in is trustworthy in the first place (we've talked before about how easy it is for untrustworthy nonsense to persuade us), because once your opinion forms that might just be it for you.
Finally, take everything with a grain of salt. Even this! Because as E.B. White wrote:
I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular
Besides no one wants to come across as one of those old, hilariously intolerant assholes. Having trouble with friends who won't change their mind? Learn the one sentence that will double your persuasion. Or learn how you aren't as happy as you could be (again, because of your bloody brain's phobia of mental conflict). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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