Cognitive Bias and Why We’re Always Right

Everyone has an opinion (like something else) but cognitive bias seems to be edging out debate, fueled in part, no doubt, by the national party conventions.  The various forms of cognitive bias creep into our ability to think critically. They offer validation, and there’s no better feeling than to have someone else’s conclusions reinforce our own beliefs that we are right.

This tendency to bask in the opinions of those whose ideas comport with our own appears to be on the increase (or else we just think it’s more prevalent because of our own biases).

But no place is this trend more evident than on social media, which online tech publisher Sean Blanda points out is probably the worst arena to find validation.

Blanda calls this common byproduct of social media a case of “false consensus bias,” in which people surround themselves with other people who thinks like they do, and are therefore surprised when they found out that not everyone thinks like they do.

Over time, this (bias) morphs into a subconscious belief that we and our friends are the sane ones and that there’s a crazy ‘Other Side’ that must be laughed at — an Other Side that just doesn’t ‘get it,’ and is clearly not as intelligent as ‘us.’ But this holier-than-thou social media behavior is counterproductive, it’s self-aggrandizement at the cost of actual nuanced discourse and if we want to consider online discourse productive, we need to move past this.

What is emerging is the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t. It’s like clockwork: an event happens and then your social media circle is shocked when a non-social media peer group public reacts to news in an unexpected way. They then mock the Other Side for being ‘out of touch’ or ‘dumb.’ …

When someone communicates that they are not ‘on our side’ our first reaction is to run away or dismiss them as stupid. To be sure, there are hateful, racist, people not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire. I’m instead referencing those who actually believe in an opposing viewpoint of a complicated issue, and do so for genuine, considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.

This is not a ‘political correctness’ issue. It’s a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right. It’s a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, and not the complicated individual human beings that they actually are.

Blanda is describing one of many biases that is creeping into our collective conversation. Some others:

Availability bias — The tendency to believe that if something can be recalled, it must be more significant or important.

Confirmation bias — The tendency to only seek out information that confirms our beliefs.

Outcome bias — The tendency to believe that the desired ends justify the means.

Selective perception — The tendency to let our expectations drive how we view events.

(Read a list of 20 cognitive biases in this Business Insider infographic)

This “other sided”ness, this “us vs. them” mentality is a problem because it prevents progress toward common goals. We as a nation are a stiff-necked people, getting stiffer in our convictions because we feel that we have more to lose if we compromise.

But compromise enables progress and solutions to be devised. We may think we have the answer, but if we can’t get enough people – those outside our echo chamber – to work with us toward our goal, then we merely play a game of one-step forward, two-steps back.

As for the false consensus, Blanda offers an exercise to test one’s predilection toward this bias.

A dare for the next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with: Don’t try to ‘win.’ Don’t try to ‘convince’ anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to ‘lose.’ Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it. No one is going to tell your environmentalist friends that you merely asked follow up questions after your brother made his pro-fracking case.

Read Blanda’s article on false consensus bias and how it operates on social media.