BOZTEPE: Precautions against bias strongly needed


Column: Kaanotations

When we have disagreements with others, one of the first things we hear is that people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe. 

I used to believe that this was just a way of accepting that not everyone will agree with you, but recently I learned there is a cognitive reason for this that we label as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to recall information in a way that supports their already existing beliefs, which means that we subconsciously interpret facts in a slanted lens. Throughout this piece, I will discuss how confirmation bias affects people and how we can avoid it. 

The best way to represent confirmation bias would be by viewing modern day politics. Due to an extreme lack of bipartisanship in recent years in government, a biased search for information and interpretation occurs which causes people to ignore information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs, as well as interpret information in a way that confirms their beliefs. 

There are two cognitive mechanisms that we can use to explain why people act in this manner. The first is challenge avoidance, which explains that people simply do not want to find out that they are wrong. The second is reinforcement seeking, which specifies the fact that people want to find out they are right. These two factors stem from people’s desire to minimize their cognitive dissonance, which is the psychological stress people experience when they hold multiple beliefs and do not have a specific view they see as fact. 

In truth, these cognitive biases are harmless, as your brain is only trying to simplify the amount of information you are trying to process. As a society we like to believe we are being objective, logical and capable of evaluating all information around us. Unfortunately, these biases, that we are not always self-aware of, can lead us to poor decisions and judgments. 

This should not be so shocking, because it has been proven that memory is easily influenced. Let us say there was a robbery and there were two friends next to each other as witnesses. The moment they both explain what happened is when the post-event information, especially since there are two views, begins to interfere with the memory of the original event. 

Let us even assume that the second friend explained the robbery perfectly as opposed to the first friend, but then the investigator might have an anchoring bias — which is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information someone is given.  

People would try to prove their initial hypothesis or the first thing they heard rather than check if it is true, not necessarily due to laziness or wanting to harm others, but simply because we have been built in a way that normally ignores the possibility of an alternative hypothesis that could make more sense. 

We normally do this because we have no motivation, either emotional or intellectual, to think otherwise It can also be the case that our brain suppresses neural activity in the area of the brain that regulates our emotional reasoning which uses processed information as a guide on how to act. 

This is not anyone’s fault and there are a multitude of reasons why we do this, such as a traumatic experience, emotional connections to trigger words or images that remind you of a specific event or validating information you have heard from someone you trust regardless if they are actually right or wrong. 

We are all guilty of this, or have had events that have subconsciously affected us at times without us even knowing. My solution is something that is useful in all aspects of life, self-awareness.

If we can accept that we make mistakes and be self-aware that there are no truths that cannot be debated, then we can take a more objective approach on new information we hear about things we once believed as a fact. 

The point of trying to be more self-aware is so that we can get out of the habit of reinforcement seeking or challenge avoidance when we are set on one specific belief and resist considering alternative views. 

Your view still might be true, but if you were able to fully hear the opposing views and weigh their hypothesizes against your hypothesis, the worst possible outcome is that their hypothesis is correct and you, in turn, learn something new.

Kaan Jon Boztepe is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in philosophy and history. His column, "Kaanotations," runs on alternate Tuesdays.  

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