Thinking About Our Thinking: Is what you believe really true?

 Submitted for publication in the Prior Lake American, May 7, 2019:

A whole new field in the study of economics has developed in recent years, that of “behavioral economics”. This involves how our unconscious biases affect our economic decisions and which result in our making choices that are not optimal. For example, most people avoid losses more than they seek gains, even if the losses and gains are equal.

A similar field of study is how cognitive biases affect our political thinking. Cognitive biases are shortcuts in our thinking that are often useful, but which make our judgments irrational and/or lack objectivity. See for a useful list of 24 such cognitive biases.

Here are the ones that appear to most affect our political thinking.

Because of “confirmation bias” we tend to seek out information that confirms our opinions and ignore or dismiss information that is inconsistent with those beliefs. The algorithms of Facebook and Google tend to accentuate this problem, as we are fed “stuff” that is consistent with our previous “likes” or searches – thus the “echo chamber” of political thought.  This has made the polarization of America worse. “Belief bias” is related in that if a conclusion supports our existing beliefs, we will rationalize anything that supports it.

A useful antidote to this bias is to apply the scientific method. That is, treat our belief as a hypothesis, and test it by exposing it to disconfirming data, information and beliefs. If it can withstand that objective scrutiny, then it is more likely to be true. We need to ask ourselves, “When and how did I get this belief?”  The circumstances in which we came to that belief may no longer apply, and a new understanding may emerge.

Beware of the “backfire effect”. When our core beliefs are challenged, it can cause us to believe even more strongly. Related to this is “reactance” when we would rather do the opposite of what someone is trying to make us do or make us believe. Dale Carnegie (or was it Ben Franklin?) said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

Another hazard is “groupthink”. The social dynamics of a group may influence our thinking, in a desire to “fit in”. This is very observable in political party functions. For example, in a Republican party meeting, who dares speak out against Trump? In the Obama years, who dared speak against him in the Democratic party meetings?

And, “in-group bias” may cause us to unfairly favor those who belong to our group. i.e., who are most like us, or belong to our groups. Similarly, the “halo effect” is strong in political parties. If we like someone, that positively influences our judgments of them and of their performance or opinions.  

But, one of the most dangerous cognitive biases is the “Dunning-Kruger effect” People with little knowledge tend to think they know more than they actually do and thus tend to overestimate their ability. Conversely, the more you know, the less confident you're likely to be about what you know. The problem is that people with little knowledge don’t know what they don’t know – i.e. they are not even aware of entire fields of knowledge. It's easy to be over-confident when you have only a simple idea of how things are.

The antidote to this bias is to be open to a group of people with diverse opinions, and with people with knowledge of the subject matter that is pertinent to the decision to be made. Diversity just for the sake of diversity without knowledge is not enough. Through open dialogue, much may be learned and better decisions made. The failure of doing so is particularly critical where the decision-making power is concentrated into one or a few hands, such as the U.S. Presidency where the President can unilaterally make huge changes in policy through executive orders. The same is true in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries with autocratic rulers.

Hopefully being aware of our biases will make us more open to finding common ground.


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