Tag: Leo Tolstoy

Confirmation Bias: Why You Should Seek Out Disconfirming Evidence

“What the human being is best at doing is
interpreting all new information
so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

— Warren Buffett

***

The Basics

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry pick information which confirms pre-existing beliefs or ideas. This is also known as myside bias or confirmatory bias. Two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence, and still come away both validated by it. Confirmation bias is pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views.

Failing to interpret information in an unbiased way can lead to serious misjudgements. By understanding this, we can learn to identify it in ourselves and others. We can be cautious of data which seems to immediately support our views.

When we feel as if others ‘cannot see sense’, a grasp of how confirmation bias works can enable us to understand why. Willard V Quine and J.S. Ullian described this bias in The Web of Belief as such:

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

Experimentation beginning in the 1960s revealed our tendency to confirm existing beliefs, rather than questioning them or seeking new ones. Other research has revealed our single-minded need to enforce ideas.

Like many mental models, confirmation bias was first identified by the ancient Greeks. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described this tendency as such:

For it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.

Why we use this cognitive shortcut is understandable. Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy. Our brains prefer to take shortcuts. This saves the time needed to make decisions, in particular when under pressure. As many evolutionary scientists have pointed out, our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world. For most of human history, people experienced very little information during their lifetimes. Decisions tended to be survival based. Now, we are constantly receiving new information and have to make numerous complex choices each day. To stave off overwhelm, we have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.

In The Case for Motivated Reasoning, Ziva Kunda wrote “we give special weight to information that allows us to come to the conclusion we want to reach.” Accepting information which confirms our beliefs is easy and requires little mental energy. Yet contradicting information causes us to shy away, grasping for a reason to discard it.

In The Little Book of Stupidity, Sia Mohajer wrote:

The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own… In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases.

How Confirmation Bias Clouds our Judgement

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.”
— Francis Bacon

***

The complexity of confirmation bias partly arises from the fact that it is impossible to overcome it without an awareness of the concept. Even when shown evidence to contradict a biased view, we may still interpret it in a manner which reinforces our current perspective.

In one Stanford study, participants were chosen, half of whom were in favor of capital punishment. The other half were opposed to it. Both groups read details of the same two fictional studies. Half of the participants were told that one study supported the deterrent effect of capital punishment and the other opposed it. The other participants read the inverse information. At the conclusion of the study, the majority of participants stuck to their original views, pointing to the data which supported it and discarding that which did not.

Confirmation bias clouds our judgement. It gives us a skewed view of information, even straight numerical figures. Understanding this cannot fail to transform a person’s worldview. Or rather, our perspective on it. Lewis Carroll stated “we are what we believe we are”, but it seems that the world is also what we believe it to be.

A poem by Shannon L. Adler illustrates this concept:

Read it with sorrow and you will feel hate.
Read it with anger and you will feel vengeful.
Read it with paranoia and you will feel confusion.
Read it with empathy and you will feel compassion.
Read it with love and you will feel flattery.
Read it with hope and you will feel positive.
Read it with humor and you will feel joy.
Read it without bias and you will feel peace.
Do not read it at all and you will not feel a thing.

Confirmation bias is somewhat linked to our memories (similar to availability bias.) We have a penchant for recalling evidence which backs up our beliefs. However neutral the original information was, we fall prey to selective recall. As Leo Tolstoy wrote:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

Why We Ignore Contradicting Evidence

“Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the destruction of their original evidential bases.”
—Lee Ross and Craig Anderson

***

Why is it that we struggle to even acknowledge information which contradicts our views? When first learning about the existence of confirmation bias, many people deny they are affected. After all, most of us see ourselves as intelligent, rational people. So, how can our beliefs persevere even in the face of clear, empirical evidence? Even when something is proven untrue many entirely sane people continue to find ways to mitigate the subsequent cognitive dissonance.

Much of this is the result of our need for cognitive consistency. We are bombarded by information. It comes from other people, the media, our experience, and different sources. Our minds must find means of encoding, storing, and retrieving the data we are exposed to. One way we do this is by developing cognitive shortcuts and models. These can be useful, or unhelpful. Confirmation bias is one of the less helpful heuristics which exists as a result. The information which we interpret is influenced by existing beliefs, meaning we are more likely to recall it. As a consequence, we tend to see more evidence which enforces our worldview. Confirmatory data is taken seriously, while disconfirmatory data is treated with scepticism. Our general assimilation of information is subject to deep bias. To constantly evaluate our worldview would be exhausting, so we prefer to strengthen it. It can also be difficult to consider multiple ideas at once, making it simpler to focus on just one.

We ignore contradictory evidence because it is so unpalatable for our brains. According to research by Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock, we are motivated to think in a critical manner only when held accountable by others. If we are expected to justify our beliefs, feelings, and behaviour to others, we are less likely to be biased towards confirmatory evidence. This is less out of a desire to be accurate, and more the result of wanting to avoid negative consequences or derision for being illogical. Ignoring evidence can be beneficial, such as when we side with the beliefs of others to avoid social alienation.

Examples of Confirmation Bias in Action

Creationists vs Evolutionary Biologists

A prime example of confirmation bias can be seen in the clashes between creationists and evolutionary biologists. The latter use scientific evidence and experimentation to reveal the process of biological evolution over millions of years. The former see the bible as true in the literal sense, and think the world is only a few thousand years old. Creationists are skilled at mitigating the cognitive dissonance caused by factual evidence which disproves their ideas. Many consider the non-empirical ‘evidence’ for their beliefs (such as spiritual experiences and the existence of scripture) to be of greater value than the empirical evidence for evolution.

Evolutionary biologists have used fossil records to prove how the process of evolution has occurred over millions of years. Meanwhile, some creationists view the same fossils as planted by a god to test our beliefs. Others claim that fossils are proof of the global flood described in the bible. They ignore evidence to contradict these conspiratorial ideas, instead of using it to confirm what they already think.

Doomsayers

Take a walk through London on a busy day and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a doomsayer on a street corner ranting about the upcoming apocalypse. Return a while later and you will find them still there, announcing that the end has been postponed.

Leon Festinger explained the phenomena:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart, suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it. Finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal, and undeniable evidence that his belief is wrong, what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view

Music

Confirmation bias in music is interesting because it is actually part of why we enjoy it so much. According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music:

As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one.

Witness the way a group of teenagers will act when someone puts on Wonderwall by Oasis or Creep by Radiohead. Or how their parents react to Starman by Bowie or Alone by Heart. Or even their grandparents to The Way You Look Tonight by Sinatra or Je ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf. The ability to predict each successive beat or syllable is intrinsically pleasurable. This is a case of confirmation bias serving us well. We learn to understand musical patterns and conventions, enjoying seeing them play out.

Homeopathy

The multi-billion dollar homeopathy industry is an example of mass confirmation bias.

Homeopathy was invented by Jacques Benveniste, a French researcher studying histamines. Benveniste became convinced that the effectiveness of histamines increased as a solution was diluted, due to what he termed ‘water memories.’ Test results were performed without blinding, leading to a placebo effect. Benveniste was so certain of his hypothesis that he found data to confirm it and ignored that which did not. Other researchers repeated his experiments with appropriate blinding and proved Benveniste’s results to have been false. Many of the people who worked with him withdrew from science as a result.

Yet homeopathy supporters have only grown in numbers. Supporters cling to any evidence to support homeopathy while ignoring that which does not.

Scientific Experiments

“One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

In good scientific experiments, researchers should seek to falsify their hypotheses, not to confirm it. Unfortunately, this is not always the case (as shown by homeopathy.) There are many cases of scientists interpreting data in a biased manner, or repeating experiments until they achieve the desired result. Confirmation bias also comes into play when scientists peer review studies. They tend to give positive reviews of studies which confirm their views and those accepted by the scientific community.

This is problematic. Inadequate research programs can continue past the point where evidence points to a false hypothesis. Confirmation bias wastes a huge amount of time and funding. We must not take science at face value and be aware of the role of biased reporting.

Conclusion

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
— Robertson Davies

***

This article has the potential to be an opportunity to assess how confirmation bias affects you. Consider looking back over the previous paragraphs and asking:

  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • How did I react to the points which I agreed/disagreed with?
  • Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?

Being cognizant of confirmation is not easy, but with practice, it is possible to recognize the role it plays in the way we interpret information. You need to search out disconfirming evidence.

As Rebecca Goldstein wrote in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel:

All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed, the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather, the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

To learn more about confirmation bias, read The Little Book of Stupidity or The Black Swan. Be sure to check out our entire latticework of mental models.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

-Robertson Davies

Daily Routines of Famous Creatives: Artists, Writers, Composers

daily rituals by mason currey

What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?

After reading Mason Currey's fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.

But if you're looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you're out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one, won't work for another.

However, whether you're looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.

Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.

Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.

Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.

For seven years I ate at Bob's Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there's lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It's a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob's.

Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can't work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”

Exercise.
“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.

Lie down.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957

I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

He isn't the only one.

Marcel Proust, Currey writes …

wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You're putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.

Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn't,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren't writing novels.”

Err, if you're really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I've realized that somebody who's tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”

Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.

early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family

Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I've found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know, you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, i'm only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o'clock in the afternoon.' And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that's not completely true. But there's something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”

Avoid email.
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)

Often after an hour of working I'll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you've lost forty-five minutes of time.

I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he believed that “idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don't overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.