Think different


Argument (Photo credit: Natesh Ramasamy)

This article reflects the reality I see in my debates with people on both sides of the spectrum… or is that just my confirmation bias talking?

People on one side (generally, the conservative and fundamentalist religious crowd) seem to, in my experience, tend to participate in a discussion by leveraging one argument or statistic (or Bible quote) that they have heard and confirms what they believe, and can therefore declare that the issue is settled: there is no further need for discussion. The need for closure has been met, no more information is required or will be collected.

But it’s interesting to note the reaction when that argument or statistic (or Bible quote) is countered, put into a larger context, disproved or even just balanced out to the point where it’s not a conclusive, end-of-discussion full stop. If someone responds negatively or with anger to a disproof of their statistic, it’s a fair bet to assume that you are disturbing their sense of closure, which puts them into an uncomfortable mental space where there are too many shades of gray. And that in-between position seems to be a far more uncomfortable position for conservatives and the ultra-religious to be in, when compared to more liberal and less religious groups. Living and thinking in that in-between space requires more context and nuance in reaching conclusions, which is more labor-intensive.

What I always find fascinating is that these simplistic, closure-meeting and generally incorrect (in the larger picture) arguments generally came from sources like authority figures and web pages frequented by those who tend to already agree with the point made. But there’s little curiosity to verify the claim instead of just taking it as given that it is true, which might lead to the uncomfortable realization that their source of truth may be wrong, sometimes egregiously so. So many times an argument against or for a position could have been very simply countered by searching for information about the context, the history or the bias of the argument… but it seems that people just want a data point to support their position, and stop searching for information as soon as they find one, regardless of the data point’s pedigree.

I see examples of this all the time in discussions on evolution, climate change, economics, politics, the harm vs. benefits of religion, atheism, the pros and the cons of specific candidates, and (especially interesting) when debating what the actual position of their favorite candidate is. How could, for example, anyone even start to believe that Michele Bachmann is or was pro-same sex marriage at any point of their career? But to an online pro-same sex marriage and Bachmann-supporting friend, it came as a complete shock when I informed her that she had expressed her opposition clearly on multiple occasions. How is that information blindness even achievable? That is, it must be said, an extreme lack of awareness, but the blindness or unwillingness to navigate their (sometimes quite contradictory) statements or actions appears repeatedly in discussions on many candidates’ positions.

It’s because of the way our brains are wired, and the cognitive biases under which which we all labor. Confirmation bias seems to be the strongest influence, but the “ambiguity effect” (where we avoid options in which missing or incomplete information makes probabilities less predictable), attentional bias (where we agree more with the people whose opinions we hear on the media we’re already paying attention to, and lend their opinions more weight… because we already agree with that media), and illusory correlation bias (where we assume a causal relationship between unrelated events if they support our stereotype or pre-existing assumption) all have their pernicious and usually unnoticed effect. And those are just four out of the many, many biases our thinking is prone to bluescreen on.

Life is far more subtle and nuanced and filled with shades of gray for people who are uncomfortable with a lack of closure. But comfort with a lack of closure should be our default position on a lot of issues.  At the very least the presence of an opposite position in the world, one upheld by a large segment of the population, should give us pause to consider: are we supporting our position because we have investigated it, explored the pros and cons, and reached a reasonable position that takes both sides into account (even if that means dismissing one side after careful consideration, as we must do in the case of the anti-evolution crowd), or have we latched on to the small handful of statistics that we found on our favorite website and assumed they are correct with no further analysis?  Are we demonstrating our cognitive biases (for which the answer will almost always be “yes”, the difference being usually only one of degree), or are we taking them into account in reaching our position?

Life requires a lot of thought.  Be skeptical of those who have the answers already set out for you, and especially those who claim that these issues (politics, religion, abortion) are simple, black and white, and require little thought.  As was the case with someone who once said “you are either for us, or against us” they are, almost inevitably, incorrect.

And as a side note, anyone whose position on ANY contentious topic can be summarized conclusively on a bumper sticker is someone whose opinion I will tend to discount quite heavily: bumper stickers tend to not encourage discussion, and seem to base the authority of their necessarily inarguable position on the fact that one car happens to be in front of another.


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