Curing Bias with Curiosity

I Want To Believe‘It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavorable.’ -Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

If you haven’t read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments go get it right now. It’s an extraordinary, and widely unknown piece of art chalked full of useful wisdom. I’d say Adam Smith has Ben Franklin easily beat in the realm of advice to help you live life to the fullest.

Adam Smith’s advice in that quote is one of those cliches that we all know, but never take into consideration when it’s most needed. It’s one of those cliches that science has proven effects us all, and yet we still fall into it without batting an eye.

What Adam Smith was talking about is now known as motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is something we use to justify and mitigate cognitive dissonance. “…rather than search for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” (Steven Hoffman)

As MIT researchers explain it, motivated reasoning is “…a form of implicit regulation in which the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states associated with threat to or attainment of motives.”

To simplify all of that, motivated reasoning is when you ignore information that goes against your beliefs whether you realize it or not.

Why It Happens

In order to gain a full understanding of what motivated reasoning is, and to eventually discuss solutions, it’s important to know why it happens. There is no known reason. And likely no one reason why we unconsciously ignore that which goes against our own beliefs. Professors Milton Lodge and Charles S. Taber¬†outline their theory in what they call goal-oriented motivational reasoning.

Basically, when you’re presented with an idea, problem, or policy, you instantly start to think about information you already have on the topic. This is common sense that we can all confirm through personal anecdote, right? The information you recall is, however, dependent upon your current mood. This is an uncontrollable fact. Your mind fetches different kinds of information based on your emotions. How you currently feel can determine what you can currently recall. This too is common sense.

Both your mood and cognitive processes are activated at the same time on any given subject. That creates the process that results in emotional biases. The logical, emotionless arguer is just as much a myth as multi-taskers¬†and photographic memory. It’s made-up bullshit that people use to brag about themselves. Like when people brag about the results they got on a personality test.

Your Argument Is Invalid

Let’s think about this issue in terms of an example. When an anarcho-capitalist hears a liberal say that guns are dangerous and not a necessity anymore, it probably pisses them off. I know this because it used to piss me off. Now it just annoys the hell out of me. The AnCaps’ response is to look for ways to prove that the liberal is wrong. Fair enough, right?

But the liberal isn’t wrong at all. Guns are dangerous. They should be treated with respect, and with safety always in mind. Not doing so can result in the harm of yourself or others. And owning a gun isn’t necessary to live a full, healthy, and safe life.

You could fairly say that guns are safe overall because they allow safe people to protect themselves and others from dangerous people. You could also fairly say that assault weapons are great for self-defense in extreme scenarios. Both arguments are fair ones to make from their respected perspectives.

Here’s the problem. Neither argument has anything to do with the other. In average rhetoric, those two sides may seem like polar opposites, and they may be in some way. But neither shows and ounce of understanding for the other side. You could easily make either argument, not as a response to the other, but a general statement, and it would still hold its full context. The arguments aren’t responses, they’re statements.

If an AnCap says that guns are safe and necessary, that doesn’t say anything about the libertarian or anarcho-capitalist philosophy. It is simply an emotionally driven response to the idea of guns being banned by the government.

Typical gun arguments by AnCaps (I’m focusing on AnCaps only because I understand the philosophy best.) are goal-oriented reasoning. They’re using an emotionally based argument based on the fear of guns being illegal and the anger at liberal ignorance to argue for legalization. Even though legalization has nothing to do with their philosophy.

An argument for guns to a liberal from an AnCap would say that property owners should individually decide whether or not it is OK or worthwhile to allow people to carry guns on their property. The smaller pockets of control via property owners gives greater flexibility to those living in the community.

If an anti-gun campaign moves most, or all, of an areas’ commercial property owners to make the decision to ban guns (maybe even making exceptions for law enforcement), then it is in line with anarcho-capitalist beliefs.

Anarchy is the ultimate democracy because there is no monopolized bureaucracy to get in the way of the people who want to make a change.

Coming out of the 2016 election, I believe this argument to be well formatted for the topic. That argument, by the way, is also based on the moral foundations theory.

Curiosity and Motivational Reasoning

A 2012 Yale study found that more thoughtful people are most likely to twist empirical evidence to match their own beliefs. Meaning, the smarter the person is the more likely they are to use motivated reasoning. The only reason I bring this up is to reiterate that knowing about it, or thinking you’re too good for it in no way makes you immune to emotional biases.

Fixing common biases and heuristics is not a simple matter of being smart about it. Fixing these things is a matter of building systems of habits for yourself, maintaining strict discipline, and using counter ways of thinking to cancel out the bias. Even with all that, you can’t cure it completely. You can only minimize it. You’re a human, your brain is complex. You are not in control of it. If you haven’t accepted that by now, there’s no point in reading about how it ticks.

In 2016, a new Yale study found that people who have a higher level of knowledge regarding science (basic facts, quantitative reasoning), are more likely to be polarized on the political scale. Meaning, more knowledgeable conservatives lean furthest to the right and more knowledgeable liberals lean furthest to the left. As the 2012 study suggests, these smarter people are better at creating reason for their beliefs and strengthening them through motivated reasoning.

A follow-up to that study showed that people with higher levels of curiosity are actually drawn to reading stories that go against their preexisting beliefs. And are therefore more likely to cross party lines, regardless of their intelligence level. This should be obvious as it’s basically the definition of curiosity. But the study found that curious people enjoy hearing about things that prove them wrong and that this does not stop in regards to politics.

The moral of these studies is that curious people don’t show bias and don’t often use motivated reasoning to explain why something is wrong rather than learn from it.

Somehow, it is easy for us to accept that memory is terrible. That eyewitness testimony is the worst form of evidence in court. But we can not accept the fact that, in the same way, when we make arguments or rationalize our beliefs, our brains unconsciously fill in the gaps to ‘fix’ any holes in our rationale.

Accepting and Curing Bias

When the idea of ‘bias’ is brought up, it is usually a derogatory term rather than a natural occurrence that we all experience daily. Instead of pointing out bias as a way to not only be helpful but learn, we use it as an insult. Which in itself shows bias.

A 2014 study showed that when you’re curious about something, it releases dopamine. (Compare this to when you get angry or frustrated when you hear certain beliefs.) When you read or learn about something you have a passion for, you’ve certainly experienced this dopamine rush.

To add to that, the same study found that your hippocampus becomes more active when you see something you’re curious about. A more active hippocampus means an active and effective long-term memory. Anything you see while it is active, you are more likely to remember, and more likely to pull knowledge from.

Again, this should be obvious. We all find it easier and more fun to learn about things we enjoy. Here’s the secret, you can cultivate this curiosity into other subjects by relating them to what you’re interested in, and through practice and discipline.

Having a political belief based on unbridled freedom for all isn’t about proving the viewpoints of someone else wrong. It’s about allowing them to explore and discover what’s right for them outside of a monopolized government.

Curiosity is how we learn from one another. Learning from one another is how we build a society. You don’t build a successful society by appointing governors and lawmakers to determine how things should be. Readers of Free Keene should know that praxeology shows us that there is no single correct answer for all.

We should be curious to see many solutions to many problems living side by side. We should be able to take into account the pros and cons of each. We shouldn’t just reject ideas because conservatives said it, or because liberals said it. That’s the mistake they’ve made through the Democratic and Republican parties. We have all allowed ourselves to take positions via bias and rationalized it only after taking the position.

I’ve suggested deep canvassing as a way to talk to people about their beliefs in a persuasive way. I’ve expanded that same topic into online conversation by presenting a single study of the subject. I expanded those ideas with the moral foundations theory.

All of those ideas are based on listening. To expand even further, I propose that adding the practice of curiosity to that listening will help you learn, in a positive way, from anyone you’re talking to. That’s the opposite of taking the position of opposing others and preparing to prove them wrong.

Moving towards understanding others rather than opposing them will improve your persuasive abilities, as mentioned before. But it will also allow you to obtain more information, learn, and take your own beliefs to a whole new level.


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