Why people don't like being wrong: about taking sides, confirmation bias, and neutrality

Published 19 May 2016 | 927 words | Categories: Psychology

Humans are complicated creatures. Why is it that we do or say certain things? What makes beliefs unshakable? Usually confirmation bias is to blame. In the digital age, where opinions are around every corner, is true neutrality possible? 

In a post about voting, Scott Adams said this:

Anderson Cooper of CNN says he probably won’t vote in the coming election. He says voting would bias him when he covers political news. I agree.

I call it the joiner problem. The minute you take a side, you start acquiring confirmation bias to bolster your sense of rightness. Objectivity is nearly impossible once you commit to a team.

The way confirmation bias works is that you can’t see it when you’re in it. Other people might be able to observe the bias in you, but by definition you can’t see it in yourself. The act of voting causes a sort of psychological blindness.

I'm sure he's right. Unfortunately, it's also somewhat of a no-win situation.

The problem with taking sides often lies in its inherent complexity. There's always a chance that the chosen side is the wrong side, or your side is correct but has some troubling issues. Sometimes the other side will make up awful things about your side, tainting it through rumor or propaganda.

Taking a side isn't so difficult if there are indisputable facts involved. It's hard to decry truth, although people still do it. Some believe the Earth is still flat, even though it was proven round over 2000 years ago. Others think the sun revolves around the Earth, or that vaccination causes autism in children (it won't). Confirmation bias to an extreme.

Still, it's human. Dale Carnagie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) talks about this at length, mostly in chapter 1 of the book. He recalls an interview with Lewis Lawes, warden of the Sing Sing prison in New York. The warden was quoted as saying:

"...few of the criminals [here] regard themselves as bad men. They are just as human as you and I. They rationalize, they explain. They can tell you why they had to crack a safe or be quick on the trigger finger. Most of them attempt by a form of reasoning, fallacious or logical, to justify their antisocial acts even to themselves, consequently stoutly maintaining that they should never have been imprisoned at all."

There are more examples with criminals like Al Capone. Carnagie posits that criticism is futile and potentially dangerous "because it wounds a person's precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment." If you tell someone their belief is silly and wrong, that person will see it as you insulting their intelligence. Most people don't think of themselves as dumb. This leads to a near-instant defensive position. If you're accused of being wrong, your first reaction won't be heartfelt agreement.

Dale also includes a quote from John Wanamaker:

"...it is foolish to scold. I have enough trouble overcoming my own limitations without fretting over the fact that God has not seen fit to distribute evenly the gift of intelligence."

Basically, if someone strongly believes in something, it's hard to change their mind. I used to argue with people on the internet a lot, replying to incorrect statements and doing fact checks. And I don't think it did much good. It might have, though it's impossible to know if there were results. After a while, arguing felt like a waste of time and energy (which I could use on more worthwhile pursuits). Turning a person from one side to another is difficult and often unnecessary. We're all likely guilty of having confirmation bias, one way or another, even if we haven't yet realized it.

When I see a comment that prompts me to type a refutation, now I ask myself a simple question before moving my fingers: "Will my response improve this person's life and my life?" More often than not, asking this question stops me.

People can change their minds in the face of new information. (Although I have a feeling it's not as common as we want, since people prefer to be correct all the time.)

Some people are more logic-based than others. Scientists for example may delight in being proven wrong, as it gets them closer to acquiring a true answer. Most people think of themselves as intelligent and logical. In all likelihood, they are! Yet there's still the human element, being privy to emotion and bias.

"If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between 'for' and 'against' is the mind's worst disease." - Sent-ts'an, 700 CE

Is true neutrality possible? 

Probably not. Best thing people can do is look for grey areas. Try to keep the big picture in mind, and think about each side's points. Consider as many viewpoints as possible.

What's the solution when confronted by someone who is clearly wrong?

Tact, understanding, and patience. Acknowledge their point and allow the person to arrive at their own conclusions. You won't change their mind that day, but change often doesn't happen overnight.

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