Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Instinct For Bias

Confirmation bias. Apparently we all have it. That doesn’t sound like a good thing. Bias sounds like prejudice. No one wants to be thought of as prejudiced.

I read a piece in the NYT recently about a study that showed how when trying to find answers we look in safe and familiar places. The article had a test as part of it. A set of three numbers. The test was to determine the rule governed them. You could enter other sets of three numbers yourself to test your theory. The second two numbers were each double the one before, so it looked like that was the rule. It was…and it wasn’t. It turns out the rule was each number merely had to be higher than the one that preceded it.

Over ninety percent of those tested (including me), said what they thought the rule was without ever entering a number set that failed, even though there was no penalty for that. In other words, we didn’t probe the edges of what the rule might be, we raced down the first safe path we discovered. 

Gotcha, the article said. You don’t want to be told your answer is wrong, so you only test the rule with safe answers. You have confirmation bias.

The authors made it sound like a character flaw. Like prejudice. What I think it is, though, is a survival  instinct. If you are trying to make a quick decision about what to do, and you’re pretty sure what the safe move is, that’s the one you tend to make. Long ago in our evolutionary development, those who made the safe play lived to play (and procreate) another day. Confirmation bias is nothing more that an adaptive trait that helped the species survive. It doesn’t show weak character, just good survival instincts.

That distinction may sound like splitting hairs, but I don’t think so. The better we understand our behavior, the better equipped we are to modify it. If we think those of us in our red and blue political tribes are preferring to listen to what we want to hear just because we are morons, we miss an important opportunity to break through that evolutionary adaptation and inspire more considered thought, more testing of conventional wisdom, more understanding of what the rule really is. Not just the middle road, but all the possible paths that might lead to common ground.

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