Friday, July 20, 2018

How can we overcome confirmation bias?


This guest post by Leah Goldrick was originally published on her excellent blog, Common Sense Ethics. Leah acknowledges that confirmation bias is linked to pattern recognition, which serves a useful purpose. The confirmation bias problem arises when we seek out information to confirm what we believe and ignore everything else.

The documentary that Leah refers to in her first paragraph is worth watching. It illustrates how easy it was for a group of people who did not appear likely to be particularly gullible to acquire an unshakeable belief that the end of the world would occur on 21 May 2011.



Why is it so hard to for us the change our beliefs or to get other people to change their minds? A new documentary film Right Between Your Ears, examines the science and psychology of how people form convictions. According to producer Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist, certain aspects of human psychology make it very hard for us to be objective or unbiased.

People usually form beliefs by accepting what they've been told by someone they trust: parents, teachers, media and so on. Our beliefs can change when we learn new things. But when we become convinced of something, it is similar to a religious belief in the way our brain operates. We may react with anger when challenged. This human tendency often leads us to seek out information which confirms what we already believe and ignore everything else - it's a cognitive bias actually - called confirmation bias.

It seems obvious why confirmation bias can be a problem - it can prevent us making good decisions. It makes us rigid thinkers. Someone can easily fool us by simply appealing to our established belief systems. The good news is that there are some practical strategies to overcome this natural human shortsightedness that I'll let you in on at the end of the post.

How We Form Beliefs

Let me back up for just a second. What led me to write this post (besides my abiding interest in critical thinking) was the Shakespeare authorship course I recently took online via the University of London. Along with being just about the most interesting topic ever, the instructor, Dr. Ros Barber, focused the first lesson on the science of how beliefs are formed, cognitive bias, and how belief systems can crystallize into orthodoxies which may not be questioned without ridicule.

Dr. Barber interviews ​Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist and documentary film maker currently working at the Department of Neuroimaging at King's Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, about how we form our beliefs in the first place.

According to De Meyer, we form fairly rigid belief systems or perceptual frameworks out of necessity as we go through life in order to handle the information continually coming at us. Usually, our perceptual framework serves us quite well. But it can also be a major intellectual handicap when we are confronted with information which undercuts our established belief systems. De Meyer states:

"But beliefs become strongly held and particularly if we build our identity around them, they begin to act as perception filters. Indeed, it might be useful to think of a belief as a perceptual framework, something that helps us make sense of the world around us." 

Confirmation Bias

The problem with our perceptions being filtered through our belief structures is that it can create something called confirmation bias. We tend to interpret new information in a way that strengthens our preexisting beliefs. ​​When we are confronted with information which conflicts with our beliefs, we will often find ways to discard it. We also tend to search out information which confirms our beliefs rather than looking for more neutral or contradictory information.

For our general functioning in the world, we must keep our perceptual frameworks fairly rigid. So even when our brain finds data that is anomalous, confirmation bias can lead us to explain it away as an error. Experiments in the 1960s hinted that people are biased towards their beliefs. Later experiments focused on our natural tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives.

Anyone can suffer from confirmation bias: teachers, Shakespeare scholars, even scientists. In one study on confirmation bias involving scientists, over half of laboratory experimental results were inconsistent with the scientists' original hypotheses. In these cases, the scientists were reluctant to consider that data as valid. The anomalous finding was usually classified as a mistake. Even after scientists had produced an anomaly more than once, they would often choose not to follow up.

When we perceive, we construct systems of beliefs inside of our heads like a lawyer trying to prove a case. The more strongly we are engaged in a topic, the more likely we are to dismiss contradictory evidence. Basically on both sides of any debate, we have a system beliefs that tells us that we are right and the other side is wrong.

According to Ros Barber, "[When any conflict happens] it's been described as "a dialog of the deaf" because people can't hear the other point of view. They just think it's totally invalid." 

Cognitive Dissonance

So why does confirmation bias happen? It might be because of wishful thinking, or because of our limited mental capacity to process information. It could also have to do with a failure to imagine alternate possibilities (more on this later). Another explanation for confirmation bias is that people are afraid of being wrong, and fail to ask the right probing questions about their beliefs, instead reasoning from their already held conclusions.

When we are confronted with contradictory evidence, it causes something called cognitive dissonance - mental distress caused by information that doesn't fit in with our current understanding of the world. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and people will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid it.

​Cognitive dissonance was first theorized by psychologist Leon Festinger who argued that we have an inner drive to hold consistent beliefs. Holding inconsistent beliefs causes us to feel disharmonious. Festinger studied a cult whose members believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. He investigated what happened to the cult members, especially the committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs, after the flood did not happen on the proposed date.

The most committed cult members were more likely to rationalize their original beliefs (confirmation bias) even after experiencing cognitive dissonance in the face of the flood not happening. Loosely affiliated members were much more likely to admit that they had simply made a mistake and to move on. The more attached we are to a belief, the harder it is to change it. 

How To Think (and Debate) With Less Bias

​So what are the best strategies to overcome our natural human shortsightedness and bias? The first is to keep emotional distance in reasoning, and the second is to consider the other side (or sides) of any debate, a technique called the "consider the opposite," strategy.

1. Keep Emotional Distance When Reasoning

Given the natural human tendency towards confirmation bias, it is important to be at least somewhat dispassionate when reasoning and debating. I like to call this emotional distance. Emotional distance is just as much a character trait of a reasonable person as it is a strategy for handling cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias may in part stem from our desire not to be wrong, so by keeping emotional distance, you essentially are willing admit to yourself that you could have some things wrong. Don't be too attached to any particular piece of evidence. In any difficult debate we all may get certain parts of the puzzle incorrect.

Look out for signs of confirmation bias in yourself. ​ Remember that the more strongly held your beliefs are, the more likely you are to refuse to consider alternative evidence - like the cult members who invested everything in their belief in an impending flood.

Emotional distance also involves viewing debate as dialog rather than an angry fight. If your ego gets too caught up defending a certain belief, you are more likely to get angry when contradicted. Angry people usually double down and become more extreme on their point of view rather than considering someone else's. Keep in mind that politeness might actually be the secret weapon for getting someone to overcome their bias. Kris De Meyer suggests:

"When we do feel a pang of anger at being challenged, rather than responding very quickly we can step away from it for maybe a few hours or a day, think carefully about where that person is coming from, and then see if we can give them more constructive comments that then doesn't spark his or her angry response. Because it's those feelings of anger at being misunderstood and of being misrepresented that really are the ones that drive us towards more certainty. And if the conversation becomes amicable, it can be heated and passionate without being acrimonious and negative. The way to use [your knowledge of confirmation bias] is to question yourself and to reflect on your own assumptions and your own interactions with other people."

Maintaining emotional distance is powerful, but it may not be enough to overcome biases, which is why we should also use this second strategy:

2. Consider the Opposite

Confirmation bias may in part be the result of our limited mental capacity to imagine alternative scenarios. The consider the opposite strategy helps us to envision how else things might be. In a recent study, this technique was proven to work better than just attempting to remain objective.

Considering the opposite in everyday practice works like this: you take a look at a set of facts about something. Generally, you would try to discern whether the facts support your belief or not. If you are experiencing confirmation bias, you would probably imagine that the facts do actually support your belief. But when you force yourself to consider the opposite, you instead imagine that the facts point the opposite way, disproving your belief. This helps you to imagine alternatives to what you already believe.

The consider the opposite strategy works particularly well with diametrically opposed beliefs, but always bear in mind that there may be more than one alternate possibility. Be willing to entertain various possibilities rather than falling victim to false dichotomies. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Should we look forward to the Social Singularity?


The social singularity should not be confused with the technological singularity, which Wikipedia defines as the hypothesis that invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable change to human civilization.


The Social Singularity, as described by Max Borders in his recently published book of that name, relates to the way we (humans) organise ourselves in relation to each other. Max’s hypothesis is that at some point social organisation will be completely transformed as a result of mass adoption of secure networking technologies. When that happens some existing mediating structures will become obsolete, new forms of coordination will emerge and we will collaborate as never before.



What does that mean in terms that you and I can understand? The best place to begin is with the concept of subversive innovation. You might think it is tedious to begin an explanation by introducing another concept, but I promise to provide some concrete examples before long.

These days just about everyone knows what an innovation is. Most readers will be familiar with disruptive innovations that are making many goods more accessible and affordable. Subversive innovations “are those that have the potential to replace long-accepted mediating structures of society”. The mediating structures that Max is writing about include: hierarchical firms; group-think practices among the scientific establishment that have led to widespread acceptance of numerous findings that cannot be replicated; centralised education which views students as having “heads like buckets to be filled with information curated by central elites”; long-standing practices of financial intermediaries; mainstream media that once generated social coherence; and national governments.

Readers will already be familiar with some of the subversive innovations that are occurring. Some firms are replacing hierarchical command and control structures with decentralised systems in which self-directed individuals create order by establishing networks to achieve common purposes. The Internet has enabled informal networks of people, often including amateurs, who question scientific dogma e.g. the paleo-diet movement. Disruptive innovation has begun in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Long-established practices of financial institutions are being challenged by block chain technologies, and cryptocurrencies are enabling people to transact without using national currencies or financial intermediaries. The Internet has disrupted the role of mainstream media in generating social coherence - making it possible for populists to challenge political orthodoxy, but also reducing the potential for views to coalesce around a deeply flawed narrative.

The potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government is in my view the most interesting idea in the book. We can already see this happening to some extent as innovating firms search out the weak joints in government regulation, particularly the regulatory barriers to competition that have enabled incumbents in various industries to prosper at the expense of the rest of the community. Think of how Uber’s ridesharing innovations circumvented regulations protecting incumbents in the taxi industry.

Max suggests that the potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government will be enhanced by the advent of smart contracts in which a host of humans can act together to achieve a common goal without middlemen. The coordinating mechanism of smart contracts involves distributed ledgers, programmable incentives and blockchain secured tokens. Tokens can align the interests of producers, consumers and investors in ways that may have potential to enable many types of public goods to be produced privately by profit-seeking entrepreneurs. It doesn’t seem possible at this stage to provide a concrete example of how this might work. Perhaps it can be thought of as crowdsourcing on steroids.

Where might this take us? Max suggests that the potential for people to forge real social contracts - contracts they choose to enter voluntarily rather than the hypothetical social contracts of political theory - “could become the killer app of politics”:

"Communities of tomorrow will form entire systems of mutual aid through digital compacts that have nothing to do with borders or accidents of birth. … Humanity will upload important commitments into social contracts. Cosmopolitan communities of practice will form in the electronic ether. What remains on the ground—goods, services, and the relationships of flesh-and-blood neighbors—will be a far more localized phenomenon. The days of outsourcing our civic responsibilities to distant capitals are numbered."

What Max has in mind is polyarchy – competitive provision of goods that have been provided collectively. The basic idea is that if there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods like health insurance or education, you should be allowed to exit one system and join another without moving to a different system’s territory. You could take resources you were once required to pay in taxation and use them to pay for membership of another community or multiple other communities.

So, what reason do we have to think that governments might one day be willing to recognize the right of exit required to make polyarchy a reality?

Max notes that new constituencies are forming around the benefits of the sharing economy:

"Special interests that once squeaked to get the oil are confronted by battalions bearing smartphones. Citizens, fed up with leaving their prayers in the voting booth, are voting more with their dollars and their devices. Free association is now ensured by design, not by statute."

The Social Singularity mixes the author’s views on how things ought to evolve and how he expects them to evolve. Max acknowledges that he does this. The book offers readers an appealing vision of how the future could evolve and invites them to help make that vision a reality.

The book contains much that I haven’t written about in this short review. I should mention the link between the social singularity and spiral dynamics. Now I have mentioned it, I want to write more about it. Perhaps later!

I should also note before concluding that the title of the book, as presented on the title page, is The Social Singularity: A Decentralist Manifesto. Decentralization is a theme of the book. Max begins his chapter on the future of governance by quoting Vincent Ostrom:

“The fashioning of a truly free world depends on building fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing”.

 In a post I wrote a few months ago I mused about how Ostrom’s vision of decentralisation of politics could eventually become a reality. If I ever write on that topic again there will be a reference to Max Borders and the concept of subversive innovations will feature prominently.

The Social Singularity deserves to be read widely and thought about deeply.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?


According to Jason Brennan, a political philosopher, there are three broad types of democratic citizen:

·         Hobbits are mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics. They don’t give politics much thought.

·         Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. They have strong and largely fixed world views. They tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions and ignore or reject information that contradicts those opinions.

·         Vulcans think scientifically and dispassionately about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They try to avoid being biased in explaining contrary points of view.

When I attempt to relate these citizen types to the stages of adult development identified by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, discussed in my last post, it is obvious that Vulcans have self-transforming minds. I have the impression that other types of democratic citizen tend to exhibit lower stages of adult development in their political views than in other aspects of their lives. There isn’t much incentive to behave like a responsible adult in the political arena since your vote is unlikely to be decisive. Some Hooligans may be self-authoring (self-directed) in the sense that they have chosen for themselves which political team to support. In their role as citizens, however, Hooligans are characterised as having the socialized minds of faithful followers. Hobbits may be socialised, or even self-authoring, in some aspects of their lives, but they are disassociated from politics.  


In his book, Against Democracy, Jason suggests that few citizens are Vulcans. Nearly all citizens are either Hobbits or Hooligans. Hooligans have more political knowledge than Hobbits but are still prone to make systemic mistakes on many important issues in economics and political science. The cumulative impact of their incompetence has adverse consequences for other citizens. On this basis Jason argues that there are good grounds to presume that some feasible form of epistocracy – a system that gives competent and knowledgeable citizens more political power than others - would out-perform democracy, in which all citizens have equal voting rights. Epistocracy would still result in rule by Hooligans, but would give greater power to competent and knowledgeable Hooligans.

Jason is against democracy only in the sense that he considers that some form of epistocracy would be likely to produce superior outcomes. He acknowledges evidence that democracies have done a better job of protecting economic and civil liberties and well-being of citizens than dictatorships, one-party governments, oligarchies and real monarchies.

In the light of the bias and ignorance of voters, some readers may be wondering how most modern democracies have managed to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Jason suggests that has been prevented by several moderating factors including the power of the judiciary and government bureaucracies to set their own agenda, the power of political parties to shape the political agenda independently of what voters desire, and politicians who have generally been much better informed than voters.

That line of reasoning supports the views of Joseph Schumpeter, a famous economist who argued about 70 years ago that the success of democracy was problematic unless it was strictly limited.  In my book Free to Flourish I noted that other famous economists, including James Buchanan and Milton Friedman, suggested that additional constraints needed to be imposed on democratic politics to avoid bad outcomes.  

In the preface to the 2017 paperback edition of Against Democracy, Jason notes that in recent years more people have become willing to consider the flaws in democracy. After mentioning Trump and Brexit he goes on to make the point that his criticisms of democracy are based on information on voter ignorance that has been known for a long time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explore whether there has been a change in the moderating factors that have hitherto ensured that outcomes are better than they would have been if the prejudices of ignorant voters had prevailed.

The change I have in mind is the declining power of the major political parties to shape political agendas in ways that moderate the ill-informed desires of electors. It strikes me that over the last decade or so, innovations in the social media have greatly increased the power of ill-informed Hooligans and the populist politicians who promise to give effect to their views. Ill-informed Hooligans can now more easily establish links with like-minded people who share their misconceptions. They tend to communicate in echo chambers that reinforce their outrage when the leadership of the major parties is unresponsive to their concerns. Consequently, in some countries we are seeing ill-informed Hooligans taking over major parties and the reins of government. In other countries splinter parties comprised of ill-informed Hooligans are attracting supporters away from major parties and making it more difficult for them to pursue coherent policy agendas. No matter which way it is happening, the growth in political influence of the ill-informed Hooligans seems likely to be detrimental to the future well-being of citizens in democratic countries.

Jason outlines a range of possible forms of epistocracy that might reduce the political influence of Hobbits and ill-informed Hooligans. Most of these suggestions involve taking the right to vote away from ill-informed people or giving their vote lower weight.

However, it is difficult to see how those proposals could ever be politically feasible while most citizens continue to have some faith in democracy. Even citizens who have shown no interest in politics in the past are likely to place some value on their right to vote. They are likely to perceive that it has existence value. The right to vote offers all citizens the potential to participate collectively in voting an oppressive government out of office, should the need arise.

It seems to me that when government by ill-informed Hooligans produces economic disasters the best response we can hope for will be for changes to be made in the rules of the game to tip the balance in favour of better economic policies. This could involve such things as more effective public debt ceilings, and making proposals for changes in tariffs and other trade barriers open to scrutiny by an independent agency responsible for reporting publicly on national economic benefits and costs. A couple of years ago I suggested some more fundamental institutional changes to make government in Australia more accountable in an article in On Line opinion.  

The question in the heading of this article is prompted by Jason’s favourite epistocracy proposal, government by simulated oracle:

 "Suppose there is a range of candidates from various political parties. We can ask citizens to provide their anonymously coded demographic information and then take a test of basic objective political knowledge. They then rank the candidates from most to least favored. Using these data, we can determine how the public would rank the candidates if the public were fully informed. Whatever candidates ranks the highest, wins." 

I am not attracted to the idea of adjusting the preferences of voters in this way, but I wonder whether a significant proportion of voters might be willing to accept the guidance of an oracle to help them to decide how to cast their votes. What I have in mind is that individual voters would be surveyed to determine their preferences and then offered impartial expert voting advice based on their responses. At present there are any number of commentators offering voting advice, but effort is involved for individuals to find and interpret this information. I am not aware of any oracles offering unbiased voting advice tailored to individual voters.
How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?