2016-09-20

Sh*t Your Brain Tells You

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Confirmation bias is
"the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities." (Wikipedia)
We all do this. It's a huge influence on the way our brains work. Thucydides observed, some 400 years BCE:
"It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy."
Dante's Divine Comedy notes,
"opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one's own opinion binds, confines the mind."
Thomas Jefferson said,
"The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.”
Confirmation bias accounts for the tendency for astrology fans to notice in others and in themselves the traits that astrology ascribes. But the problem goes deeper than that. Not only is there an unconscious tendency to find confirmation for our beliefs, but there is a bias toward confirming mere suggestions. If I suggest to you that a mutual friend can be understood as being like a bull, say, or like a lion, even if you don't believe me, the mere suggestion creates an involuntary, unconscious filter increasing your attention to the person's bullish or leonine qualities (whatever you may take those to be).

Astrology was buzzing on social media last week, as certain findings of science that have been known for some time suddenly became mildly viral. The constellations of the zodiac, it turns out, do not line up with the dates standard astrology assigns to each of the signs. Last January, a NASA blog for explaining science to nonscientists explained:
"The constellations are different sizes and shapes, so the Sun spends different lengths of time lined up with each one. The line from Earth through the Sun points to Virgo for 45 days, but it points to Scorpius for only 7 days. To make a tidy match with their 12-month calendar, the Babylonians ignored the fact that the Sun actually moves through 13 constellations, not 12. Then they assigned each of those 12 constellations equal amounts of time. Besides the 12 familiar constellations of the zodiac, the Sun is also aligned with Ophiuchus for about 18 days each year." (NASA Space Place, 2016 Jan 13)
Thus, the timetable of when the sun is actually in each of the 13 (not 12!) constellations looks like this:
  • Capricorn: Jan 20 – Feb 16
  • Aquarius: Feb 16 – March 11
  • Pisces: March 11 – April 18
  • Aries: April 18 – May 13
  • Taurus: May 13 – June 21
  • Gemini: June 21 – July 20
  • Cancer: July 20 – August 10
  • Leo: August 10 – September 16 
  • Virgo: September 16 – October 14
  • Libra: October 14 – November 23
  • Scorpio: November 23 – November 29
  • Ophiuchus: November 29 – December 17
  • Sagittarius: December 17 – January 20
When this timetable took off on social media, some folks were a bit freaked out. Reactive denial was common. One typical comment: "Oh hell, no. You did NOT just turn me into a Gemini. NASA be damned, it ain't happening."

In fact, no one's astrological sign changed. The astrological zodiac is based on the seasons, not what constellation the Sun is in. Aries begins on the vernal equinox, Cancer on the summer solstice, etc. The 12 signs of the zodiac divide each season into three equal parts. The astrological zodiac does NOT, after all, represent the dates when a line from Earth to Sun would point to the given constellation. Rather, the signs of the zodiac represent the first, middle, or last third of spring, summer, fall, or winter.

Still, the folderol got me to musing about the way the brain's suggestibility introduces a form of confirmation bias. My daughter is a Scorpio, meaning that she was born in the middle-third of autumn. The Sun, on her birthday, however, is in Libra. What subtle differences might it have made through the years of her upbringing if one minor background image/metaphor I had of her had been a balance scale rather than a reactive stinging arachnid? I don't know what the personality attributes of a Scorpio are supposed to be, and I don't believe that people who happen to be born in late October or early or mid-November are any more likely than anyone else to have any given measurable personality trait. The existence of such likelihood would be an empirical finding, and numerous studies have found no correlations between any measurable personality attribute and date of birth. Nevertheless, my brain, in some unconscious way that it couldn't help, associated the image of a scorpion with my daughter -- along with associating an image of a fish with myself and an image of a crab with my spouse. Suppose, instead, that my brain had associated the image of a balance scale with my daughter. Would my own reactivity to her have been assuaged just a tiny bit by this minuscule nudge toward seeing her as skillfully balancing competing impulses and pressures and away from likely to inflict pain if threatened? Or, on the other hand, would seeing her as a Libra have made me slightly more likely to treat her as passive, while seeing her as a Scorpio helped incline me to see her as fierce?

Confirmation bias is a problem. But not having it at all would be an even bigger problem. Confirmation bias, together with its cousin the behavioral confirmation effect (a.k.a., the "self-fulfilling prophecy" that happens when your expectations influence your behavior to bring about the expected result) helps us have a coherent sense of ourselves, our world, and our purpose in it.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have a theory of human reasoning: that it evolved not in order for humans to better discern truth or make better decisions. (Their article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences is HERE.) If that were its evolutionary function, surely natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias. Rather, reasoning evolved just in order for us to persuade one another. We are deeply social animals, and having a shared view of things helps us like each other and get along -- which is often more important than whether the shared view of things is true. If the objective is to produce at a conclusion that the group collectively endorses, then confirmation bias is quite handy: it keeps us focused on the evidence we can point out to each other to reinforce our consensus and bring lagging skeptics on board.

We evolved in a context of intratribal dependency and also intertribal conflict -- we really needed to get along with our own people and also really needed to be able to fight against outsiders. Tribal survival depended on being able to defend our stuff (our turf, our food, our males' access to our reproductive-age females), and, when times got tough, survival sometimes depended on being able to conquer a neighboring tribe and take their stuff. Shared viewpoints would have functioned to strengthen the bonds within our tribe, and also would have facilitated a useful hatred of neighboring tribes who had different viewpoints. We needed to have viewpoints that were a product of intratribal conversation and weren't terribly closely determined by reality -- because then the other tribe would arrive at the same conclusion, and we wouldn't be able to hate them for their corrupt beliefs. Confirmation bias suits the need with amazing efficacy.

The same process also produces our sense of self. The self, as George Herbert Mead said, is a "generalized other" -- meaning that we develop our sense of who we are by learning about others and internalizing our understanding of others-in-general. The same persuasive processes we use with each other to form a coherent group, we also use on ourselves to form a coherent identity. My confirmation bias helps me know who I am. The behavioral confirmation effect (self-fulfilling prophecy) helps me act in a way that I not only observe confirmation of my beliefs, but engage with the world to make confirmations happen. Without these, I would know neither who I am nor whose I am. As Joseph Campbell taught us, our myths -- which depend on confirmation bias to sustain -- are not only powerful, but also necessary.


It's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart, for we are not logical. But being illogical does sometimes land us in a tight spot.


What is to be done? Some suggestions:

#1. Don't believe what you think. You were made to have confirmation bias, and to think that your own beliefs are true. Even suggestions you don't believe have a way of directing your attention and action to seek their confirmation. Now that you know this, you can partially counter it just by noticing it at work. When you notice it, say to yourself: "There goes my brain just wanting to confirm. I can't entirely stop it from doing that, but I can deliberately withhold cognitive assent from what it finds." Being a fan of a sports team can be good practice. Notice how you think the world is a better place if your team wins. Notice how you can't really believe that -- but you cheer for your team anyway, just because it's fun. Can you consciously bring the same attitude to other things that you think?

#2. Intend to cultivate negative capability. "Negative capability" was John Keats' term for "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Work on being comfortable not knowing. As the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn often repeated: "Only don't know." Cultivate awe and wonder and mystery -- which depend on the absence of a satisfying story/explanation. Refuse, to the extent you can, to let any story/explanation satisfy.

#3. Use play to switch around your images and metaphors. Your brain is built to latch onto stories, images, metaphors. You can't help that, but you can loosen the grip of any one story by playing around with other stories. I might have countered the biasing effect of a scorpion image for my daughter by playfully suggesting that we think of as many ways as we could that she was actually a good example of a Libra. And so on for all the zodiac signs. Read lots of novels, exposing yourself to many different stories. People who expose themselves to a great multiplicity of stories are less in the grip any one bias. (Well, I think so. Or maybe that's just my experience filtered through my confirmation bias.)

#4. Plunge in. This one may seem counter-intuitive since it amounts to heightening your bias. There is, however, something true about every bias. Plunge in and see what you can learn about yourself from stories woven from random events. The lines on your hand, the Tarot cards that happen to come up, your zodiac sign -- explore what meaning can be made out of such coincidences. Pay a visit to a palm reader, or Tarot psychic, or astrologer, and let them tell you you the detailed story they make up. You actually will learn something about yourself. Even if it isn't any more true of you than it would be for anyone else, it's still got some truth for you. Suppose you were born the first third of winter. Astrology says you're a Capricorn, so reflect on your goatishness. Maybe everyone is kinda goatish, but it's still a helpful exercise to focus on how you are. It brings attention to an aspect of yourself. You can then better notice when that aspect is asserting itself. When you notice, you can then decide whether that's really the aspect that you want at the fore just then. The metaphors, images, or stories that most insidiously influence us are the ones that operate largely unconsciously. Fleshing out the details helps us be more conscious of them.

Being human is great -- and, anyway, what else are you going to be? The gifts come with shadows, though. If we know them for what they are, they can be kinda fun.


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