I, like many others, are fascinated by the concept of cognitive biases. It you want a catalogue of these shortcuts that the brain uses to make sense (often incorrectly) of the world around us, Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly is highly recommended – although be warned that by the end of reading it you’ll probably be doing anything but.

But as an evolutionist I do wonder sometimes if too often these biases are portrayed as outright bugs in the human operating system. We do human intelligence a great disservice when we analogize ourselves to computers; remember that the metaphor started the other way around. Cognitive biases exist because they are really useful, and the “as bugs” way of thinking makes the flawed assumption that the world is just a series of right answers to discover, a world dominated by clocks not clouds.

At the top of the list of cognitive biases is Confirmation Bias. I should know because I just found something on the internet that told me so. Confirmation Bias is a nightmare because it prevents us from finding the right answer because our held belief filters the evidence we seek to support our point of view.

But what if there isn’t a “right” answer? Then Confirmation Bias is really, really useful.

At the moment we are rebuilding our house. I say “we” – Giani and his crew are doing all the skilled and hard work, my wife and I are left with only the design decisions and finding the funds. For the past three days we have deliberated as to whether “the answer” is zero, 10, 17.5 or 30. The what is irrelevant- materially the choice of one those numbers is a matter of aesthetics, with some cost implications associated with each. I’d go for whatever is cheapest. Mrs B wants what will “look right”. Before the four options were presented by our builder, she was clear in her mind that the answer was zero. But with options came confusion.

Without a strong sense of Confirmation Bias in a realm where there is no right answer, confusion reigns. Information is sought and confuses further. Google Image search for “Kitchen Window Splashback” and you tell me what the right answer is when the options are 0, 10, 17.5 or 30?! 

Without strong confirmation bias, three days of our lives have been spent trying to gather data to resolve an question to which there is no right answer. And that’s the thing about confirmation biases. They aren’t bugs. They’re very handy ways for us to make sense of a world where actually reality is just a subjective construct.

And that goes way, way bigger than merely cognitive short-cuts to decision making. As Will Storr puts it in his book The Heretics:

By the time you have reached adulthood your brain has decided how the world works – how a table looks and feels, how liquids and authority figures behave, how scary are rats… It has made its mind up. From then on in, its treatment of any new information that runs counter to those views can be brutal…

Your mind contains internal models of everything…. It uses these models as a shortcut, in order to more easily conjure up an illusion of a sane, whole and coherent reality. This illusion is so complete that we don’t believe it is one. It’s hard to underplay the brilliance of this lie: up to 90 per cent of what you are seeing right now is constructed from your memories.

Just remember that next time someone starts blathering on about creating “one version of the truth”….

One thought on “Anti-confirmation bias

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