Some people identify the heart with emotion and the brain with the rational. That’s a mistake. As many studies indicate, irrationality is perfectly integrated into the functioning of our nervous system, which includes the human brain.
One of the aspects of our behavior in which this irrational component is most noticeable is cognitive biases, that is, deformations in the way of reasoning that are usually unconscious and involuntary. One of the most frequent is confirmation bias, which is very common in our daily life and professional life. Let’s see what it consists of.
What is confirmation bias?
In short, confirmation bias is a propensity to give more importance and credibility to data that fit our beliefs than to those that contradict them, even if both pieces of information are initially equally well-founded.
This bias is not only negative because it contributes to the fact that our ideas do not change. Moreover, under its effect we run the risk of believing that totally debatable and opinionable ideas are almost revealed truths, purely objective knowledge that it would be unwise to place under suspicion. In other words, the confirmation bias is the worst enemy of philosophy, since it constantly reinforces the ideas that we have automatically decided to believe at all costs.
The role of cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a well-known concept in psychology, and consists of the feeling of discomfort we experience when an idea conflicts with one of our beliefs.
Sometimes we learn to manage this discomfort in a constructive way by modifying our explanations about reality, and other times we do not succeed and we limit ourselves to manipulating these ideas in any way so that the importance of what we had already believed before prevails . The confirmation bias is one of those elements that lead us to discard provocative ideas just because they are provocative.
To better understand what a confirmation bias is and how cognitive dissonance can be mismanaged, let’s look at some examples based on a fictional case.
Examples of confirmation bias
Let us imagine that, after visiting some websites belonging to extreme right-wing parties, a person begins to have the idea that the black population originating from various African countries is less intelligent than Europeans and Asians.
According to this view, the poverty and low technological development experienced in these regions is due to a lower cognitive ability in the average of the inhabitants of this region. This is a seductive idea, because it offers us a simple explanation about a phenomenon that we previously believed to be more complex, and thanks to this, and even if he does not realize it, that person begins to attribute the poverty and misfortunes suffered in these areas to the low intelligence of these people.
However, because his ideas fit poorly with the thinking of many of his neighbors, this person’s beliefs are soon confronted. Some say that taking for granted the intellectual inferiority of black people is very gratuitous, especially since very little is known yet about what makes some people more or less intelligent. In the face of this, the person realizes that the person who is responding to him or her in this way is known to be a leftist activist, and therefore assumes that his or her view of reality has been distorted by progressive propaganda . This makes him disregard what it says to him.
Another person points out that even though slavery is virtually non-existent in Western countries, the poverty of past generations of blacks still affects the education of new generations, and so the development of many children is complicated by poor quality schooling, poor nutrition and other factors that have been shown to contribute to the decline in IQ. But this explanation, in the eyes of the other, is too convoluted, and so he rejects it: the simplest explanation has to be that this tendency to low intelligence is in people’s own biology.
Finally, one neighbour objects that even in middle-class black people, the stigma attached to black people in general because of racism has the power to make their life expectancy much more modest, so that they do not attach as much importance to education from a young age and therefore arrive with more insecurity and less experience at intelligence tests, batteries of exercises that are very reminiscent of anything done in an academic context. But this explanation is still not as simple and “watertight” as the idea that black people are less intelligent, so is also taken as a deformation of reality to make it fit in with one’s ideology.
In the future, this person will look at all depictions of black people on television and in other media, and every time he or she sees a case of murder by an African-American citizen, for example, he or she will attribute it to the inability of the African-American citizen to make a civilized living. On the other hand, when he sees a black person who has succeeded in life and has excellent training and education, he will attribute it to the influence that “white culture” has had on him.
Ignoring what contradicts us, accepting what reaffirms us
As we have seen in the example, confirmation bias can have dramatic consequences on the way we interpret reality . For example, it makes the simplicity of a belief be seen as a positive quality of it, regardless of the dangers involved in simplisms: it can lead us to circular thinking, because such a simple belief explains everything and at the same time explains nothing.
On the other hand, another characteristic of confirmation bias is that it makes all experiences that can be used to reinforce a belief immediately capture our attention, while those that contradict us are ignored or, at most, lead us to tiptoe over them, looking for any explanation that will make it seem that our ideas do not have to be threatened.
In the example, the hypotheses based on social influence and education are systematically discarded in favour of an explanation based on biology, but the opposite occurs when we see a black person who is much more educated than the average citizen: in this case, the explanation does lie in the social.