Friday, September 23, 2011

Everyone Is Biased But Me. But Me?

Okay, so the overwhelming preponderance of evidence from the neuropsychological sciences seems to tell us that human cognition is susceptible to a variety of biases, defects and logical fallacies which make our beliefs not the product of dispassionate rational analysis of the available objective evidence, but rather the pre-decided prejudices of the sum of our biases and a myriad of other subtle deterministic influences. We've all learned from everyday experience how irrational people can be, how biased people are and how those biases corrupt their ability to evaluate data and reach the right conclusions. And what are the right conclusions? Why they are my conclusions of course, because I am the only one who is not susceptible to bias and irrationality. I have access to my cognitive processes, so I would know if I was biased.
I find evidence of my belief in the superior purity of my own cognition every time I hear a study of priming or other non-rational psychological influences. Maybe studies of priming do show that people's judgements about the character of people in pictures shown to them could be influenced by the temperature of a cup they held for a few seconds before making the judgement, but if I was in the study I wouldn't have done the same thing.
I'm not biased like everyone else. And, yeah, I know everyone else thinks the same thing, but in my case it's really true. This is the background assumption that I and many others carry, but obviously it's ridiculous. And a few days ago I finally caught myself in the act and discovered a concrete example of biased thinking. I was listening to an editorial on NPR about the role of government in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in green energy technology. The speaker was arguing that the government could and should not act as venture capitalist in investing in new green technologies. He argued that government had a role in funding research, in passing regulations etc. but it would be a mistake to invest in start up companies because the purpose of the venture capital investor was to get a return on their investment, but the purpose of the government in the investment of venture capital would be manifold, including promoting energy independence, creating jobs, stimulating the economy as well as receiving a return on its investment. I didn't know who it was who was speaking but what he was saying seemed to make sense to me and I had a generally favorable impression of his arguments. Then the segment ended and I learned that he had been an economic advisor to George Bush. Immediately my assessment of the value of his ideas dropped. I turned a harshly skeptical eye to the argument and decided that more research was needed before I could agree with or dismiss the idea. It was amazing how dramatic and immediate the change in attitude was and this shift was based purely on bias divorced entirely from reason.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that these situations where I actually consciously notice the action of bias in my thought processes are so rare and I am pretty sure that this is not an indication of the rarity of bias but rather the rarity of its discovery. Until I can increase my ability to recognize bias when it corrupts my reasoning, the fight to exile bias from my belief generating mechanisms will be futile. To strive for rationality one must not only examine the evidence and the arguments, one must also examine the processes that are at work within us while we are examining and assessing the evidence. After all, every one is biased, especially me.

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