In Doubt, Delight: Part 1, Chapter 1: Biased Beings

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
– Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost

We wish to see the world as it truly is, but our beliefs can be blinding and our biases misleading.  Perhaps it is time to doubt; to question everything as far as possible, and to leave the comforts of our dogmas in pursuit of truth.  But before we leave our beliefs behind to embark on this journey, let us look back on how those beliefs were first formed.  For blindly accepting the challenge to abandon belief with promise of later revelation is exactly the type of groundless acceptance that this journey will attempt to eradicate.  Once we can understand how beliefs are so often formed from flawed reasoning, then the choice to question and discover truth anew with a clean slate becomes less of a blind leap and more of a rational necessity.

Why do you believe what you believe?  Well the answer for most people is, whether they want to admit it or not, that their beliefs were handed down to them.  The luck of the draw that gave you your family, community, country, language, education system, and date of birth is the most profound roll of the dice in a life.  Have you ever wondered how different you would be if you were born in a different country, raised in a different religion, and spoke a different language?  I would have to assume I would be completely different.  I might even have contradictory beliefs to those I now hold and be just as adamant that they were correct.  Do I simply believe in God because of the circumstances of my upbringing?  This question went from a playful thought experiment to a haunting exposure of a blind spot.  On what ground does my faith stand?

There comes a time in every person’s life where they must decide for themselves.  The promised words of parents and pastors can only be revered as truth for so long.  As we grow up, we realize that our parents are just as lost as we are and that those in power are often teaching with hidden motives and interests.  It is in this moment that we doubt.  At first this doubt may be terrifying, like stepping into a voidless unknown; feet dangling over endless freefall.  But if we leap, we soon find that our doubt is what brings discovery and understanding.  Doubt has a bad reputation, but it is absolutely necessary; a first step in a journey.  For any farmboy to become a hero, he first must question the status quo and realize a larger world.  After we come to this realization, it is in blind faith that we have angst, and in doubt, delight.  

How can we thrive in this doubt?  We harness it.  It is our tool for strengthening belief.  This may seem counterintuitive but without doubting our beliefs and testing their resolve we will be unable to determine if they are in fact based in solid reasoning.  The first step in embracing the doubt that will give us freedom is understanding bias and how it can shape and inflate a belief.  One type of bias that strongly supports our decision to hit the reset button is confirmation bias.  You might know it as being “defensive” but its reach extends much deeper into our subconscious.

Confirmation bias is the tendency of an individual to accept evidence that strengthens their preconceived beliefs and ignore or deny any evidence that is contradictory.  This is why, in the world of sports betting, you never bet on your own team.  Yet in almost every aspect of real life, we find ourselves betting on the home team constantly.  You bet that your political party’s candidate will be the best for your country, you bet that your company will give you the most success, and you bet that your religion will send you to heaven.  All of these bets have varying levels of certainty and reasoning behind them, nonetheless; once we attach ourselves to a belief we can become defensive instead of open.  In this same way, conspiracy theory movements are able to gain steam even in the face of debunking evidence.  Those who believe in conspiracies are able to disregard the expert who assures the public that the alien UFO pictures are fakes because they already believe that aliens are real.  They are invested.  Once they subscribe to this belief, every dissenting voice is simply another cog of the conspiracy.  So often, what we wish to be true is much more important to us than what is actually true.  So much so, that we willingly blind ourselves to the truth.  But even scarier than a conscious decision is the unconscious one that first gave confirmation bias its name.  

In 1960, the English psychologist Peter Watson decided to run an experiment.  He gave multiple individuals a set of 3 numbers (2,4,8) and told them that their mission was to determine the rule behind the sequence.  In order to discover this rule, he asked the subjects to propose a new set of three numbers and he would tell them if the new set also fit the rule.  This was their way of gaining new information.  Very quickly, the subjects came up with a hypothesized rule in their minds and tested their hypothesis by giving three new numbers.  

(Take a moment to analyze the first set of numbers (2,4,8) and think of how you would proceed if this was proposed to you.)


“Yes that fits the rule,” answers the experimenter.  


Yes again. 


Also correct.

At this point, many of the subjects became confident in their hypothesis and asked if the rule was multiplication by two of the previous number in the sequence. (2×2=4, 4×2=8)  But when the experimenter told the subjects that the rule is not that each number is double the previous, they became very confused.  However, instead of proposing different sequences that do not fit the doubling rule, they kept proposing more doubling sequences and became frustrated because each time the experimenter said that the numbers did fit his rule but his rule was not multiplication by 2.  Eventually, the subjects would propose a random set of numbers that were in ascending order and still be told that they fit the rule.  Even more frustrated, they ask if the rule is that any sequence is correct.  This was also not the rule.  It was only when they then proposed 3 numbers that were not in ascending order that they realized the rule.  The subjects only wanted to test their hypothesis with proposed numbers that fit their rule.  However, there was much more to be learned by proposing number that did not fit their hypothesis, or by proposing numbers that seemed completely random.   This is often the case with science, the anomalies that do not fit within our model of the universe are what give us true insight as to what natural rules the universe is following.  If we live where everything makes sense, we are not exploring.  And if we do not explore, we will never make new discoveries.  Time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Whether this experiment actually proved a confirmation bias is debated but it did give insight as to how the human mind operates and further studies have solidified the results. (One additional study showed that people will spend 36% more time reading an article that agrees with their beliefs.)  Do you truly believe what you say you do?  Or have you just become increasingly proficient at defending your stance?  This type of behavior is reinforced in schools as students are asked to defend a stance when writing a paper or debate one side of an argument.  We become invested in our beliefs, and an internal cost benefit analysis kicks in that tells us it is better to continue belief than to admit we wasted our time on a falsehood.  The first type of belief that comes to mind is religious, imagine a man of the clergy realizing his life was wasted if he was confronted with evidence that God was not real.  How crushing would that realization be?  Perhaps enough to never give up that belief, no matter the contradictory evidence.  However, scientists also become incredibly invested in their beliefs.  A current trend in quantum physics is string theory.  As of now there is no tangible proof of this theory, nor are there even any proposed experiments to prove its merit.  I say this believing myself that string theory is the best bet for how matter behaves at a quantum level.  However, without experimentation, this theory will remain a bet.  Yet some theoretical physicists have spent decades of their professional careers devoted to developing string theory.  These physicists absolutely have a vested interest in the theory being correct.  This is why even the scientific community struggles at times to advance thinking and theory. 

The founder of Quantum Physics, Maxwell Plank, once remarked: 

“A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Men and women of the cloth and of the lab coat are both considered experts in their fields.  Is it any wonder that they are also experts at defending their beliefs?  Do not wait until you are dead; open your mind.  Perhaps only those biased parts of us must die so that we can see the light, or at least muster a glimpse.  But why is it so difficult for us to do this?  Because our brains are dumb.  Even right now your brain has initiated the pride complex and started defending itself from outside attacks on its prowess while blinding you to the truth.  Yes, our brains are remarkable; they can achieve incredible feats, but they are also vulnerable to so many pitfalls.   There are countless examples of optical illusions that show how we can be fooled embarrassingly easy.  This is because the brain did not evolve for determining truth, it evolved to help us survive and reproduce.  This may sound very strange, and even stranger to those who do not believe in evolution, but nevertheless, the evidence is compelling.  Your brain can be very dumb and manipulatable.

The limiting factor is our brain’s computing capacity; we can only process so much information at a time and some biases can actually be quite helpful in conserving energy.   Stereotyping is one of these biases that help people simplify the world.  Obviously, applying broad generalizations across a group is unfair to the individual and at times even morally wrong, but if you are in marketing and you do not target the branding of your company’s peanut butter to mothers, then you will most likely fail and lose your job.  “Choosy moms choose Jif,” and marketing executives chose to generalize.  At least they have in the past; today, advertisers are actually able to target specific individuals based on their metadata.  This is a revolution of advertising made possible by supercomputing that can track every individual person’s interests.  Unfortunately, our brains are not capable of the same computing power, and so we take shortcuts.  Instead of assessing every individual, we generalize the group.  Men are statistically more violent than women.  It is no wonder that a woman would be nervous walking down a dark alley past a strange man.  Statistically, this woman is vulnerable and her heightened sense of awareness caused by that nervousness might even save her life.  However, many of our generalizations are founded in limited experiences and information.  When we apply generalizations, even ones that are representative of a group, we become vulnerable to drawing unfounded conclusions.   

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  -Albert Einstein

So many of our beliefs stem from this desire to simplify the world, but we get into trouble when we oversimplify.  Albert came to know this quite closely when he was confronted with quantum physics.  On a large scale, it is easy to predict the movement of planets and normal sized objects.  However; in the world of subatomic particles, predictions become very difficult.  In fact, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that it is actually impossible to know both the precise position and momentum of a subatomic particle.  Just to be clear, the principle is not implying that we simply do not have precise enough measuring devices.  It is actually a law of nature that it is impossible to know both the exact position and momentum at the same time of any particle.  Because of this foundational rule, the more we know about the particle’s position the less we know about its momentum and vice versa.  However, once all the particles come together to form an object or a planet, the probabilities even out and a predictable motion and position arises.  The problem that science ran into when trying to understand quantum physics is much like the problem we run into when trying to assess our generalized beliefs; the rule of the whole is not the rule of the individual.  For a society founded on individual freedoms, we still struggle today to understand this concept.  But even more grim is the fact that our brain does not even do a good job of looking at the whole.  

Our brains suck at seeing the whole picture.  As we said earlier, your brain has a habit of paying more attention to the things it already believes.  In the psychology community, this effect can be incited through a process called “priming.”  By giving your brain cues, an experimenter can actually change the functionality of its processes.  This can simply cause your brain to focus on certain types of data it receives.  A common occurrence of this in normal life is when you are shopping for a car and all of a sudden you see the car you were looking for everywhere.  The truth is that you had seen this car at the same frequency every day but your brain only began paying attention when it was primed.  This frequency illusion is actually an evolved part of your reticular activating system that was very useful when foraging for particular foods in our evolutionary past, and quite useful today when car shopping.  However, to believe that you are actually seeing these cars in more frequency during this time would not be a true picture of the physical world.  

Things really get interesting when we realize how priming affects behavior or even the brain’s proficiency.  We’ve all experienced our behavior change depending on circumstances or social settings.  I am sure you can think of a time when you reunited with an old group of friends and seemed to revert back to how you acted in the “good old days.”  This type of behavior is beneficial for group dynamics and every person seems to fill a role.  However, your brain may need even less priming than old friends to change behavior.  Various studies have shown that priming subjects with thoughts of old people cause them to walk slower, that priming people with rude words causes them to be more likely to interrupt an experimenter, and that priming stereotypes can cause a subject to reinforce those stigmas.  A 2006 study by Stanford researchers, Jennifer R. Steele and Nalini Ambady showed that priming Asian women with gender questions caused them to do worse on a math exam.  Conversely, priming them with racial questions caused them to do better; reinforcing the “Asians are good at math” stereotype.  The results of all of these studies are highly debated in the behavioral community because these experiments suffer from a lot of bias themselves.  Duplicating studies have had mixed results, but by grouping all the data together, there seems to be a trend.  Part of the bias that the experiments suffer from is that they expect priming to change behavior, and thus they may unknowingly skew results; another case of confirmation bias.

At this point, you might be losing hope in figuring out exactly what your brain is doing and how to keep it in check.  Good, embrace the doubting. 

Even your memories are not safe.  Your brain has been shown to misremember and even invent memories from scratch.  This is why, in the scientific community, an eyewitness account is thought of as one of the lowest forms of evidence; however, this same type of eyewitness account can send a person to execution in judicial courts.  Where were you when 9/11 happened?  I am sure you have some memory in your mind that is a mix of emotions and facts.  But memories much like your 9/11 memory are often misremembered even when the subject has extreme confidence in their story.  What if I told you that your memories are more memories of stories you told yourself than actually recalling facts?  What if your brain is playing a game of grade school “telephone” with itself every time you recall a memory?  The truth is that our brains piece together memories like a jigsaw puzzle rather than call up a video recording of the past.  Images and events can be inserted into these memories that weren’t there in the first place causing those remembering to have confidence in false memories.

The Innocence Project found that over 75% of their 250-plus defendants whose cases were overturned by DNA evidence were originally wrongfully convicted by eyewitness misidentification.  One of the most famous cases is the story of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson.  

The story begins in tragedy as a man sneaks into Jennifer’s North Carolina home and begins to rape her at knifepoint.  During the rape, Jennifer has no option but to try her best to remember his face so she could identify him if she survived the encounter.  After speaking with the police, she was given a large photo array of possible suspects.  One of those people photographed was Ronald Cotton.  The police ask her to look through the photos and try to identify the suspect.  She carefully flips through the photos, and after a process of elimination, Jennifer settles upon the photo of Ronald as being the one that most closely matches her memory.  Her confidence is then reassured when the police tell her that he is one of the people they suspect.  To confirm, the police set up an in-person lineup.  Ronald Cotton is the only person in this lineup who was also in the photo array.  With even more confidence now Jennifer picks Ronald and her certainty was quoted at 100% after the police told her that he was the same man she picked out of the photo array.  

Ronald Cotton was then convicted in 1985 in a prosecution that rested almost entirely on the testimony of Jennifer Thompson.  In interviews done by 60 minutes, she remarks that when looking back on the rape, she could even see his face in the memory.  But today, after overwhelming DNA evidence has overturned the ruling, she realizes how her memory was altered by a desire for closure and confirmation feedback from the police.  Ronald Cotton spent 10 years in jail because of this eyewitness misidentification while the real perpetrator, Bobby Poole, was found to be in a different prison for similar crimes.  Since his release, Ronald and Jennifer have now become friends and travel around the country to promote police reform and prevent these types of misidentifications from recurring.  However, Ronald’s case is just one of hundreds like it identified by the Innocence Project and there are likely hundreds more that have slipped through the cracks because of the unreliability of eyewitness reports.

So to sum things up: our brains can subconsciously filter out evidence that contradicts our beliefs, can easily be affected by priming cues, are incredibly susceptible to stereotyping, and can blatantly misremember events.  So then, how can we trust our minds?  Well, the brain did evolve one incredibly foundational function that can even overcome its own shortcomings: problem-solving.  Human beings might be the only organism that can actually comprehend its limitations and thus invent protocols that can facilitate our pursuit of truth.  One of these tools is referred to as logic, and the other is the scientific method.  

The ideas of logic and the scientific method have been around for so long that surely mankind has learned to adapt these ideas into their everyday decision-making.  One would hope so, but studies have shown that we most often decide with emotion instead of reason.   Some may say this separates man from machine and others argue it is crippling our advancement.

The truth is, that in order to make a decision, you need both logic and emotion.  Neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio found that patients with damage to the emotional portions of their brains are crippled when it comes to decision-making.  These patients weigh the pros and cons for hours, but they are never able to come to a consensus.  We may think of emotions as irrational and troublesome, but they are actually quite useful.  Emotions are how we store information and access compiled data in our brains, we cannot always remember every single point of information, but our emotions can elicit responses that are fitting for the situation.  Our emotions are almost like an internal scale we weigh our decisions upon.   In fact, it is as if emotions are the quantum computations of the mind, bringing all of the data together to form one emotion or superposition of emotions.  

We can weigh the pros and cons all we want, but at the end of the day, our emotions are there to sum things up and make a decision.  This is how we label things with emotions: “The sun makes me happy!”, “Math is confusing,” or “Endings are bittersweet.”  These emotional responses are products of data input into the mind that prime our current state.  When we have a memory, we are simply remembering the previous outcomes; more generalizations of the mind.  There are some instances that emotions can get mixed up and an emotional response is misdirected, this is usually due to some previous trauma that is triggered by a mental association.  However, most of the time, our feelings are justified.  Emotions alert you to likely scenarios or incite necessary action.  If we never got angry, no one would even know that they were doing something wrong; and if we never got happy, no one would ever know if something was good.  A simple enough concept, but still we can think of emotions as hindrances unless we stop to realize their importance.  

Furthermore, our emotional intelligence can even be passed down through generations; it does not take first-hand experience for a child to fear a wolf.  A 2013 study out of Emery College showed that when a generation of mice was electrically shocked every time the smell of cherry blossom was released, the preceding generation had an immediate fear of the scent without having to be shocked themselves.  The study asserted that epigenetic traits were passed down to the offspring that gave them the emotional fear response.  It makes you wonder, what emotional responses you have that were influenced by your parents’ lives.  

But the truly important takeaway is that emotions hold within them information, they are responses to stimuli and they help us take action.  Logic has its place and emotions can be informed by logical processes to make sure we do not have misplaced emotions, but in order to take action, emotion is required.  This is a direct parallel to how faith and reason join together to allow us to form a belief.  And so it follows, that it is with logic and emotion that we will pursue truth.

By | 2024-06-18T19:10:44-07:00 June 11th, 2024|Featured|0 Comments

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