Bias is Inescapable

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to seek out and remember examples which support our existing beliefs.

It’s easiest to see this with controversial issues. Your friend who doesn’t believe evolution will point to the gap in the fossil record, but not apply the same rigor to the authenticity of religious texts. Another who believes drugs should be legalized, may be overly critical of research showing damaging health effects, even if she doesn’t consider that point essential to her argument.

Confirmation corrupts ordinary thinking too. In a famous experiment, participants were given a numbered sequence (2, 4, 6) and asked to guess the pattern. They could test out other sequences, and gravitated to those that fit their previous theory. If they thought the rule was “1x, 2x, 3x” they might test (3, 6, 9). The real rule was more general, any ascending sequence would do. Yet, the participants failed to discover this because they were biased to confirm their prexisting beliefs.

Can Bias Be Fixed?

Given the pervasive implications of biases, a lot of people (myself included) put a great deal of thought in how to overcome them. That’s why I found this comment by Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist whose work on biases earned him a Nobel, had to say after a lifetime of studying these errors:

“What can be done about biases? … The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, [the system of generating impressions and intuitions] is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. …

“Unfortunately, [the procedure of recognizing errors] is least likely to be applied when needed most. We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally much more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions.”

He continues, arguing that the practical purpose of his book was to give people tools to point out the cognitive errors and biases of others, since he doubts we can fix our own.

I suggest that if the man who practically invented the field is skeptical about his ability to overcome bias, there’s not much hope for the rest of us.

Why Can’t Bias Be Fixed?

It may be the case that bias is unfixable because it’s integral to how our cognitive machinery works.

Daniel Willingham, whose work I previously featured here, makes a clear point about learning: we learn things based on the context of what we already know. It may even be the case that everything we learn must be built off of previous experience.

Evidence of this comes in the form of reading comprehension. Students were given an essay to read about baseball. Those who knew more about baseball were able to remember far more from the essay than others, holding reading ability constant. The prior knowledge about baseball made it possible to learn new information about baseball.

If this is so, it suggests the confirmation bias is also a feature, not just a bug. We form mental models about how the world works and then, whenever we encounter new information, we learn it by trying to integrate it into our existing framework. If that integration fails, then the information is simply forgotten or rejected, often unconsciously.

The problem is that baseball facts are usually uncontroversial. Our ability to fit other facts into our worldview often depends crucially on other tenuous assumptions we may not even have realized we have made before. Worse, this entire process may be a completely inescapable by-product of learning anything.

What Can We Do?

I think recognizing that you can’t not be biased is a good first step. If forming biased beliefs is an irresistible compulsion, then the rationalist piety and attempting to exercise discipline as a solution quickly falls away, as it should.

Instead, like anything that is irresistibly tempting, the only solution must be to change the environment to reduce the temptation or limit its damage.

If your prior beliefs will color everything you read, and what you read over and over becomes your prior beliefs, then only reading one viewpoint is incredibly dangerous. So if you’re a liberal who never reads conservatives, or vice versa, the only thing you can be certain of is how biased your opinions are.

Cultivating plurality in your input sources won’t eliminate bias, but it prevents you from naturally exacerbating them as you learn more. If all your friends are academics or travelers or vegetarians or entrepreneurs, you’ll develop tunnel vision. A good intellectual social circle shouldn’t just have mild disagreement, but have you talking to at least a few people who you think are completely wrong about everything.

Finally, you can strive to make your beliefs more explicit. Articulated beliefs aren’t immune to bias, as the number-sequence case illustrates. But an articulated belief can be debated, considered and possibly rejected. It’s the unarticulated assumptions about the world that ensnare us.

Bias may be inescapable. But you can maintain an intellectual environment which jostles you in enough random directions that getting stuck on the wrong track becomes less likely.

  • Marc-Antoine

    Great post! The positive role of bias in the process of understanding has been illuminated by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer argued that bias has a fundamental role in the act of interpreting something.

    The idea that we should strive to eliminate our prejudice comes mainly from the Enlightenment philosophers who valued an ideal of knowledge without any bias. But prejudice can also be understood as a precondition of understanding. A good example is the process of reading a book. We start by getting a general idea of the book and this general idea guides us through the different parts of the book. We then revise our understanding of the book by reading those parts. The process of understanding can then be thought has a circle between the whole and the parts.

    I insist on this point because your post emphasize the fact of confirmation bias. To be clear, I am not denying that confirmation bias is a important feature of our way of interpreting the world. But I do think that one of the most important aspects of learning is precisely the fact that sometimes we are confronted by a fact or an idea that negates our preconceptions and that we seize this moment to revise our understanding.

    Anyway, I think that you are perfectly right to emphasize the important role of plurality.

  • vetedou

    Bias leads to arguments, and I wonder why some people just don’t see it.

  • Marc-Antoine

    I think that I might have confused the word bias with the words prejudice or assumption.
    On a other note Max Weber had a nice argument against the idea of excluding an anarchist from teaching law :

    “Admittedly, attempts have been made to set certain limits on purely ‘logical’ grounds. One of our leading jurists explained on one occasion, when he was declaring himself against the exclusion of Socialists from university posts, that even he could at least not accept an ‘anarchist’ as a teacher of law, since an anarchist would deny the validity of laws as such; and he clearly thought this argument conclusive. I am of exactly the opposite opinion. An anarchist can certainly be a good legal scholar. And if he is, then it may be precisely that Archimedean point, as it were, outside the conventions and assumptions which seem to us so self-evident, at which his objective convictions (if they are genuine) place him, which equips him to recognise, in the axioms of conventional legal theory, certain fundamental problems which escape the notice of those who take them all too easily for granted. For the most radical doubt is the father of knowledge.”

  • Kelly

    Hi Scott love the post. Just wondering, in what exact context are you talking about? In which situation are we trying to accept or overcome bias? Just life in general?

    I went on your blog today with the intention of just reading something that would help me get on with my work (counterintuitive or not?) but anyway, it ended up being quite helpful for a personal issue that I’m dealing with. So thanks.

  • Baptiste

    Very interesting piece.

    I also think it’s valuable to have friends with whom you’re able to debate even though you may actually share the same opinion on a matter.

    I would say that this is one of the things I enjoy most about French culture. In my family at least, debates were encouraged at the dinner table ever since we were young. Not only does this force us to articulate our beliefs (point #2), but it’s not uncommon for someone to play devil’s advocate and challenge your viewpoint, even though they may agree with it, thus providing some “useful disagreement”.

    I also just finished reading Wisenheimer, a cool book about debate, and one thing that resonated with me was that sometimes you don’t even know what you actually think about something…until you’re debating and have to defend your position. Debate (whether in competitions or merely with friends) could thus be a tool of self-knowledge as well.

  • Kirby

    Brilliant Post Scott!

    What you bring up holds true for any person in society. My question is what happens when you have a “belief system” that is so flexible it takes in everything and helps you remember all/many examples? Does my question make sense? If it doesn’t, I will be happy to reword it.

  • Kid

    I’m not sure eliminating bias completely is even something I’d want to achieve.
    Being a chronic collector of knowledge I’ve found myself in many situations where I’ve had to completely dismantle a model of understanding.

    These experiences keep my mind ready for change.
    But I’ve at times let them affect my ability to make decisions.

    Over-questioning my understanding can burden me enough that it becomes easier to not develop an opinion or make a decision at all.

    A very simple example of this lack of trust would be using a calculator to determine that 21/2 is 10.5
    I’m perfectly capable of determining the result without a calculator but my feeble mind has made mistakes before so my trust goes to the calculator.
    To make matters worse, what if I made a mistake entering the equation into the calculator?

    A stray neuron in my head seems much more likely to affect the result than a stray photon hitting the calculator.

    Or maybe I have a bias for the abilities of the calculator?

    It just keeps on going until I realize there is still some wilderness left in the world and that I might want to go live there.

  • Kid

    I’m not sure eliminating bias completely is even something I’d want to achieve.
    Being a chronic collector of knowledge I’ve found myself in many situations where I’ve had to completely dismantle a model of understanding.

    These experiences keep my mind ready for change.
    But I’ve at times let them affect my ability to make decisions.

    Over-questioning my understanding can burden me enough that it becomes easier to not develop an opinion or make a decision at all.

    A very simple example of this lack of trust would be using a calculator to determine that 21/2 is 10.5
    I’m perfectly capable of determining the result without a calculator but my feeble mind has made mistakes before so my trust goes to the calculator.
    To make matters worse, what if I made a mistake entering the equation into the calculator?

    A stray neuron in my head seems much more likely to affect the result than a stray photon hitting the calculator.

    Or maybe I have a bias for the abilities of the calculator?

    It just keeps on going until I realize there is still some wilderness left in the world and that I might want to go live there.

AS SEEN IN