Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Defeating your own brain.

by Drek

In a blog post a while back Brad Wright helpfully posted a list of cognitive biases common to human thought. For those who are not familiar, cognitive biases are shortcuts or pseudo-flaws* in human reasoning that can lead us to incorrect or unsupportable conclusions. Brad raises the question of how these biases affect discussions of religion, but I'm not really interested in that just now. Since all humans that we've checked (and we've checked a lot) appear to be susceptible to these kinds of biases, it's most likely the case that both the theist and the atheist are equally vulnerable. It may be that each group has its own "preferred" kind of bias, but that's not really an improvement.

I bring this up because of an excellent article that recently appeared in the Washington Post that deals with a particularly disturbing cognitive bias. This article reports on, among other things, some research performed by the Centers for Disease Control that came to a rather disquieting conclusion: it appears that efforts to contradict false information may actually end up reinforcing it. To quote from the article:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a flier to combat myths about the flu vaccine. It recited various commonly held views and labeled them either "true" or "false." Among those identified as false were statements such as "The side effects are worse than the flu" and "Only older people need flu vaccine."

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

So, not only was the incorrect information retained, and not only was it retained as "accurate" knowledge, but it had somehow acquired the prestige of being supported by the Centers for Disease Control. Given that this was a study dealing with influenza, readers can be pardoned for not being too concerned, but what if this were instead dealing with information about HIV, tuberculosis, or anthrax? Would we feel as sanguine if citizens were coming to believe false information about those much more serious diseases? I suspect not. The unfortunate truth here is that this tendency for contradictions to reinforce that which they seek to discredit is a serious problem for our society. The medical implications are obvious- and may help to account for continued hysteria about vaccines- but the problems do not stop there.

We could talk about the political implications of this research. Indeed, the article itself does so, observing that this tendency to continue to believe discredited information, even to believe it more strongly, may account for a number of persistent myths surrounding the 9/11 attacks. For example:

This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

Similarly, many in the Arab world are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane.


A report last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, however, found that the number of Muslims worldwide who do not believe that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is soaring -- to 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 percent of Indonesians, 53 percent of Jordanians, 41 percent of Pakistanis and even 56 percent of British Muslims.

In more general terms, this research may also help explain why the political right in the U.S. seems to so consistently kick the ass of the political left. With its reliance on soundbites and fireworks from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, the right is ideally structured to keep punching out assertions of often dubious accuracy. And when the left attempts to combat them, it may end up simply strengthening its opponents. Heads I win, tails you lose. Perhaps if you are on the right wing you won't find this idea disturbing but you should, if only because it implies that the only way to carry out politics is to reduce it to the level of a deranged shouting match.

I mean, we're more or less there already, but it would sure be nice if we could at least try to make use of reasoned debate and discussion.**

Finally, this research has some fairly significant implications for those of us who teach, and especially those of us who teach sociology. One of the greatest problems we face in sociology is in leading our students to question their own society. We have to guide students into accepting the idea that their own society is not the only way, and probably not the best way, of living. Often this involves contradicting things our students believe or helping them to see that their own beliefs are, themselves, contradictory.*** Unfortunately, this may not actually be the best way to go about it, and in demonstrating how a previous belief is incorrect, we may do little more than reinforce it in our students' minds. It is, perhaps, no surprise then that many adults look back on their sociology classes as having been silly, obvious, or a waste of time. With the hazy perspective of years, they have forgotten all the things sociology tried to teach them, and perhaps remember only those things we sought to contradict. Only now, they remember them as being true.

I'm not sure what is to be done about this. Remaining silent won't work as silence is often taken as tacit approval. Nevertheless, we can perhaps avoid some of the consequences of this cognitive bias by spending less time contradicting bad ideas, and more time arguing for the good ones. This may, of course, be less satisfying sometimes but in the final analysis, do we want to feel good, or do we want to be effective? I prefer to think we want to be effective. And, if nothing else, we should be sure to talk about these cognitive biases whenever it's appropriate. We're all vulnerable to the mistakes they lead us towards, and our only real defense is being aware that they exist.

It's never easy to defeat your own brain but, from time to time, it's the very best thing you can do.

* I say "pseudo-flaws" because these biases were probably very useful in our evolutionary environment where the idea wasn't to reach the best conclusion, but rather the one that was good enough to keep you alive. So, for example, given a choice between alpha error and beta error, alpha error is the one to make. It's better to think you see a predator that doesn't exist than to miss the one that does. If you want to think more about this, I have pondered the matter at least once before.

** Sorry, folks. Sometimes my zeal for democracy as envisioned by political philosophers leads me to say some pretty naive things.

*** My favorite example being that common sense tells us both that "Birds of a feather flock together" and that "Opposites attract." It's pretty easy for common sense to appear to be correct when it covers all of the bases like that.

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