Recent Writings

The roots of cognitive bias

Part III of a six-part bi-weekly series on post-truth.

The halfway point between truth and error is still error. – Lee McIntyre, “Post-Truth”

When physical discomfort occurs, one generally takes steps to alleviate the pain. When moral discomfort occurs, one might apologize, confess, or pray to salve a guilty conscience.

But with psychic discomfort, which is as real as physical and moral discomfort, the tendency for many is to work around it by surrounding themselves with allies who confirm the “truthiness” of their errors.

In “Post-Truth,” McIntyre references Leon Festinger’s work, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, in which Festinger suggests the primary goal of an individual is one’s “sense of self-value.”

We don’t enjoy being called down for being wrong. Stable people seek harmony with their beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, and experience discomfort when they are out of balance. Unbalanced, unhinged, amoral types rarely find dissonance in their thought processes.

Humans are not a solitary species. We crave company and identify strongly with our tribal units: family, friends, and community. We need and seek moral support, and it’s to our tribes we turn when in need. It’s the reason we surround ourselves with compatible, like-minded friends and colleagues and join compatible groups.

Studies show that groups outperform individuals. And, as McIntyre points out, “interactive, deliberative groups outperform passive ones.”

Groups, though, can cause and reinforce groupthink, thus encouraging “irrational tendencies.” They can take on a culture set by the alpha leading or dominating it. When that happens, their potential to create psychic discomfort in the individual, increases greatly.

In his 1955 paper “Opinions and Social Pressure,” social scientist Solomon Asch shows that one’s need to belong and be accepted is so strong he/she becomes quite willing to deny undeniable evidence he/she sees. The reason, McIntyre says, is that we not only “seek harmony within our own beliefs, we also seek harmony with the beliefs of those around us.”

That can cause deep psychic discomfort, a John of the Cross struggle with one’s intellectual conscience. So, he/she searches for ways to reestablish inner harmony so much so that the individual becomes willing to alter his/her beliefs to match his/her feelings rather than the other way around. Thus, rather than being outraged by Trump’s habitual prevarications, his supporters simply deny they are real. They call it fake news.

Since November 2016, the Republican party has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc. To remain good, loyal, steadfast members of the Republican community/Trump Inc., individual Republicans have had to come into compliance with the group to avoid censure, ostracization, or excommunication.

In social psychology, it’s called “motivated reasoning.” The early 20th-century writer Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel “The Jungle” describes immigrants’ squalid conditions, said, “It is difficult to get a man to believe something his salary depends upon him not believing it.” Or one’s good-standing within the group.

Motivated reasoning, in turn, induces confirmation bias, “the mechanism by which we may try to shade our beliefs in light of our opinions, by interpreting information so that it confirms our preexisting beliefs.” It’s the purpose for Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and similar media information silos: confirming the truthiness of new-age conservatives’ errors.

Two other mental processes at work are the backfire and Dunning-Kruger effects. The backfire effect occurs when ideologues “double-down” on mistaken beliefs in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Studies confirm conservatives are far more likely than liberals to increase the strength of mistaken beliefs when presented with solid evidence to the contrary.

In their 1999 study, David Dunning and Justin Kruger discovered that low-ability individuals are not only “unable to recognize their own ineptitude,” they also unflinchingly inflate their level of performance. The know-it-all who knows little.

In the April 2011 “Current Biology,” Ryota Kanai and fellow researchers presented evidence showing increased gray matter volume of conservatives’ right amygdala where the fear-based flight-or-fight reaction is located. In liberals, its counterpart, the anterior cingulate cortex that monitors uncertainty and conflicts, shows increased gray matter volume.

Observe your psychic response to this column. It would be a good barometer on whether your right amygdala or anterior cingulate cortex rules.

Flight or fight, or reasoned, thoughtful analysis?

Note: In two weeks, social media and information silos.

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