Why you should distrust your beliefs

argument.jpgImage from Farnam Street

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” — H. L. Mencken

The evidence is overwhelming: Trump is an imbecile, and a dangerous one. The frequency of his lies are astonishing. For a (supposedly) sane person like me, the fact that he was ever voted into office, and continues to serve as the head of state, beggars belief. How can his supporters continue to stand by his side in the face of the lies, scandals, and clear evidence of Trump’s hilarious incompetency? How can they be so stupid?

Social psychology has the answer, and its implications are frightening. The phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and it causes us to blankly reject solid evidence that challenges our beliefs. Clearly, this can be a dangerous cognitive failing at certain times, such as voting for a president. There’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

Cognitive dissonance
This is the mental discomfort that you experience when your beliefs are challenged. Few people like discomfort, so we’ll do whatever we can to reduce it. The quickest way to neutralise cognitive dissonance is to simply reject the challenging idea; no effort needs to be expended to figure out whether the challenge is accurate. We can simply reject, regain our comfort, and move on. Default notions are much easier.

The alternative way to dispel discomfort is rationalisation, which we consider to be logical and accurate, but is actually just another way for us to reinforce our own idea. Reasoning is permeated with emotion – our feelings about an idea surface much faster than conscious, logical thought, so our first reaction to them is emotional, and therefore less likely to be based in reality.

“Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” —Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Our delicate egos
Much of our confidence is hinged on being right. Challenging a strongly-held belief is like taking a large stick and bashing somebody’s self-esteem with it. We want to protect ourselves at all cost, and the way that we do that is by rejecting conflicting evidence and holding onto our beliefs ever more tightly. In a sense, our beliefs are our identity, and threatening our identity is a dangerous attack which we’ll defend against using the strongest means possible: outright rejection of the belief, or rationalisation.

“The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” — Jonathan Haidt

Our tribe protects us
Our primitive times instilled a sense of tribal loyalty, which ensured our survival. If we were foolish enough to have coveted our neighbour’s delectable chimp wife, and upon discovery were cast out of the tribe, that probably would have meant death. To this day, our tribal instincts are incredibly strong. Republicans stick with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats. If you challenge a core belief of my political party, I’m very likely to outrightly reject it.

We’ve confirmed our beliefs extensively
“I don’t care whether you’re presenting overwhelming, contrary evidence to me, I’ve spent hours reading about this topic myself.”

What has actually happened is that the hours were spent reading every piece of content that agreed with my opinion, and completely ignoring that which disagreed. This is known as confirmation bias. 

1_yN2Xhv-M5PPerWzDVNt3sw.jpegImage from Chainsawsuit.com

We’re far from logical
Though we might like to consider ourselves as straightforward, logical people, the reality is that much of our decision making involves a good deal of emotion. We wouldn’t even be able to make a decision if we were 100% logical, as discovered by an unfortunate gentleman with a brain tumour. Clearly, the ludicrous man that is Donald Trump isn’t a logical choice for president, but emotionally, his supporters think that he is.

As an intelligent human, you might assume that you’ll be able to outsmart the devlish process of motivated reasoning. You’d be totally wrong – smart people are even more susceptible, because their increased levels of knowledge just make it harder for them to let go of their belief.

We have a stake in the belief
Maybe we just purchased a gleaming, curvaceous diesel Jaguar XE, and desperately want to believe that climate change is nonsense, so that we don’t feel bad about pumping diesel fumes into the atmosphere. Climate change is invisible and intangible, but our sense of moral worthiness is close to hand. The scientists must be wrong.

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Motivated reasoning is one of the culprits behind absurdities such as flat-earth theory, anti-vaxxing, and climate-change denial. The first is mildly humourous, the second will kill innocent children, and the third might end up killing a quarter of a million people a year. Obviously, what we choose to believe can have a devastating impact on our species, so being aware of motivated reasoning, and knowing how you might be able to combat it, is of urgent importance.

Here’s some ways in which you might battle your own destructive biases:

Be skeptical about your own beliefs
In light of the fact that our identity is pinged on our beliefs, this can be immensely demanding. We want to believe that we’re smart, reasonable human beings with a good idea of what’s going on around us. Being skeptical about our own beliefs might be a form of self-flagellation, in which we inflict bloody pain to cast out sinful, factually incorrect demons. Casting intentional doubt on our beliefs will cause us mental suffering, but the reward is more accurate reflection of reality, which could be the difference between life and death.

Check the credibility of your information
Tabloid newspapers aren’t credible. The ten facts about immigration that your redneck cousin posted on Facebook probably isn’t credible. The mysterious bleatings of an evangelical Christian on TV isn’t credible. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether your information is coming from an unbiased source, and so much of what we receive every day is biased. Everyone has desires that they’re motivated to achieve, and they won’t think twice about bending the truth in order to achieve them. Even if the person you’re speaking to isn’t trying to achieve a conscious desire, they’re still unconsciously trying to affirm their beliefs in order to protect their own egos.

Watch out for cognitive dissonance
When your beliefs are challenged, feeling uncomfortable is a cue to be cautious – you’ll want to seek out affirming evidence to remove the uncomfortableness. At this point you might try to deliberately soften your attitude, and consider whether the opposing belief may be correct. The more value that you place on your belief, the stronger the cognitive dissonance, and the harder it’ll be to persuade you otherwise. Keep a close eye on this, and have the courage to change your mind if you’re faced with strong opposing evidence.

Consider how your belief might be benefiting you
What do you gain by holding onto your belief? Maybe your entire family are republicans, and by switching sides, you’d no longer have their loyalty or respect? Maybe it’s just peace of mind? For climate-change deniers, the idea that we’re destroying our own planet has distressing consequences for us, and we’d rather not believe it to be true.

Work on your self-esteem
Research has shown that the better your self-esteem, the more willing you’ll be to accept threatening information, because you won’t need to be so protective of your beliefs. A much easier way of doing this is to consider something good about yourself; some personal value that you’ve achieved. This improves your confidence and makes you more accepting of challenging arguments.

Get off social media
Social media apps are motivated reasoning on crack – your friends probably hold the same beliefs as you, spread the same beliefs as you, and reinforce the same beliefs as you, regardless of whether they’re true. The Russians knew this, and used it effectively to help Trump win the election.

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It’s easy to poke fun at Trump supporters, until you realise that we’re subject to the exact same cognitive biases as them. In another life, you could have been a Trump supporter, or a pitiable flat-earther. Fighting the phenomenon of motivated reasoning is difficult, but a worthy pursuit. Without this laborious undertaking, we might find ourselves harnessing a belief that will literally help to destroy our own planet. It’s urgently important for us to reject bad ideas and promote good ones. The truth is out there, and much of it doesn’t yet reside in your head. Have the courage to pursue the truth, and in the process you might just help to save our species.

Looking down on others

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 1.24.31 pmStereosonic festival – Australia

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of being better than someone else; of tilting our heads and arrogantly looking down our noses at them. For me, this behaviour was exhibited when attending a now-cancelled music festival in Australia called Stereosonic, a dance music extravaganza for which 75% of the audience were either steroid-fuelled male beefcakes, or scantily-clad, tits-out barbie dolls, both with the same levels of self-esteem as a fired McDonalds worker. My judgments of such people are based on my beliefs that you won’t find much genuine, long-lasting fulfilment by inflating and flaunting your bodies, like peacocks with gym memberships and extra chromosomes. I’m extremely confident in this belief, and the result is condescension.

You may choose to look down on someone because of their dietary choices, perhaps going so far as to ruthlessly rebuke them. This is a trait for which some vegans have become notorious, and the reaction is often rebounded condescension, and not-so-playful piss-taking. Maybe your judgment reaches harsh levels when you observe a casually-smoking mother, whose plumes of vapour appear to be forming a circle around her innocent child.

Whatever it is that evokes condescension in you, it’s rarely a constructive thing. Though we may be confident in our judgment of the situation, we’re usually acting out of insecurity; our criticisms are often formed because we feel that we are lacking in some way, and so we judge in order to feel better about ourselves. Attacking from an elevated position is satisfying; it’s a temporary state of power and confidence. We’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re smart, and they’re dumb. We’re quite clearly better than them, and travelling on a superior path.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make when being condescending is our arrogant confidence in being 100% accurate. Our world is obscenely complex – every choice that we make and every circumstance that we find ourselves in is comprised of a huge number of intricacies. It’s usually arrogant to assume that we can recognise, analyse and conclude that somebody is making a bad choice, based on our limited understanding of the situation. Even experienced professionals are only working from the knowledge available in their field, and are just as fallible as everyone else. While I may believe that inflating your muscles in order to impress others isn’t a good tactic for achieving contentment, I don’t really know whether that’s true. I can certainly make assumptions based on my arm-chair psychology knowledge, but these are flimsy foundations on which to elevate yourself. Even the scopes of geniuses have limited clarity.

Some choices are, of course, clearly bad. Someone subject to a severe cocaine addiction shouldn’t continue to ingest cocaine, unless they want to end up killing themselves. Such clear-cut examples appear to be a rarity though – the situation is often too complex for us to make an accurate judgment on the positive value of a life choice.

One possible cause of our tendency towards condescension is the idea of cognitive dissonanceThis is the uneasy feeling that appears when a belief is contradicted by another belief, and you suddenly feel unsure of yourself. Much of our confidence is hinged on the certainty of our beliefs, and when people act in ways that go against them, we react with condescension, because we’re desperate to cling onto our own confidence. We don’t like being wrong, and so we idealise our own choices and beliefs in order to protect our delicate ego. The fact that the world is extremely complicated doesn’t even factor into our thinking; we just climb onto that high horse of ours – a more comfortably superior position.

People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective. — Wikipedia on cognitive dissonance

There’s a few reasons why you should change your condescending ways, the biggest of which is sociability. You’re not going to form good relationships with people if you look down your nose at them – it’s an awful way to be treated. A nasty habit is also being formed, which might end up with you being a resident of, or perhaps even the president of, Cuntsville. Habitants of this place constantly focus on the bad, and can become deeply depressed in the process.

If you’ve decided that you want your condescending habit to be over, then compassion is the thing that it should be replaced with. Compassion is the nemesis of condescension; it’s about displaying tender understanding, rather than arrogant judgment. As humans, we all suffer a great deal, and we’d do well to remember this fact when we’re casting judgment on another person’s choices. Everyone is just trying to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Even if you’re supremely confident in their failure to make good choices, treating them with condescension helps neither one of you. The few bad choices that are apparent may be concealed by a treasure-trove of good ones, and unless you can display the exquisite compassion required to love your fellow humans, you’ll never find out about them. We must assume that everyone we meet is better than us in some way.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s helpful to remember that we often have little control over the choices that we make. Vowing to lose 10 kilos usually doesn’t result in us losing 10 kilos. Our willpower has a tendency to be pitifully inept. Casting aspersions on people’s choices is especially callous when considering this fact, not to mention hypocritical.

Another reason to be compassionate about the apparent failings of others is the amount of terrible and easily-accessible information in the world. Some bad choices are made from a totally warped view of what will make you happy; of what is valuable. Some poor souls may live their entire lives acting out poisonous beliefs, with zero capacity or understanding on how to improve their situation. You simply can’t find good information if you don’t know how to.

There’s also our culture to consider, a powerful motivating force that can shape negative behaviours. Noxious celebrity magazines are plastered with images of stick-thin, perfectly-chiseled stars who become role models for impressionable everyday people. Is it really surprising that they will do whatever necessary to emulate the richest, most successful people on the planet? A culture doesn’t have the best interests of its people at heart, despite its potential to influence our choices. Looking down on a girl who injects her face with botox might seem justified, until you consider her a sufferer of society. And even then, what makes you so arrogant to decide that she’s making a bad choice?

We must learn to replace our condescension with a more caring, compassionate understanding. Don’t be so cocky to assume that your beliefs always reflect reality – that probably isn’t the case. Consistently challenging your beliefs and updating them will imbue you with guru-like wisdom, and the accompanying compassion that you exhibit will create long-lasting bonds with those around you.

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