Category Archives: bias

All Stories Are False, But Some Are Useful

In his Book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari calls it the cognitive revolution. About 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think and communicate in unprecedented ways. Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. We are the only species to have developed this capacity to comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories, myths, beliefs, religions and ideologies enabled the cooperation needed for large groups to work together. The cognitive revolution laid the necessary groundwork for the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, followed by the scientific revolution about 500 years ago.

The statistician George E. P. Box said,

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

In the case of the cognitive revolution that can be rephrased as, “All stories are wrong, but some are useful.”

The benefits of this ability to believe stories that enable cooperation surround us. Harai explains:

“At the heart of our mass cooperation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one-another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland, and the Serbian flag. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they all believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.”

But of course, this cooperation superpower can also backfire. There comes a time when some story is brought out into the light and we see it for what it really is — not some absolute truth, but a mere antiquated social norm. Because beliefs run so deep, people get offended at the insinuation that their “way of life” is hurting others — to them it’s just the way things are and always have been, not a story they’re telling themselves.

For example, Anastasia Basil in her article, Relax, Ladies. Don’t Be So Uptight. You Know You Want It, delineates the movies, ads, and TV shows that have socialized sexism and misogyny in America for generations. Ideas, beliefs and behaviors once thought to be “ just the way things are” is in fact just a story — one that needs to change.

She says,

“No one thinks of themselves as a byproduct of a generation…You’re aware of the trends and social attitudes of your generation, but your thoughts, proclivities, and the votes you cast are entirely your own. Or are they?”
“We are all byproducts of a collective mindset. Those who question the mindset of their time and shine light on its moral defects are considered malcontents. And yet, it is malcontents like MLK who are (later) lauded as heroes — not for upholding America’s values, for shaping them. Here’s a fun game. Ask yourself: What strongly held opinion of mine will my grandchildren one day struggle to understand?”

It takes deliberate effort to look inside and question your motives, beliefs and worldview.
As Basil goes on to say,

“The 23 percent of Americans who supported civil rights in 1963 knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t accidentally do the right thing. They weren’t accidentally on the right side of history. Instead of bullheaded allegiance, they questioned, examined, and took a knee to the moral defects of their time.”

That deliberate effort required is something that needs to be experienced. The realization needs to come from within. You can’t cause it to happen to someone by providing them with information.

Monica Hesse in the Washington Post article He thought white men were vanishing from TV. I disagreed. So we conducted an experiment, writes, about a man on Facebook who felt white men were increasingly absent from TV, and he surmised that a push toward gender and racial diversity had shoved them out. So she tried to correct him by sending links to studies showing he was wrong. One, from San Diego State University, found only 24 percent of 2017’s films had a female protagonist. It didn’t work so instead they decided to make their own data by watching an hour of the same channel, coding ads by gender, by voice-over vs. on-screen appearance, main actor vs. extra. By the end of the hour he had changed his opinion, “In reviewing these statistics, I have to change my opinion. They do represent the population fairly well. There are some commercials that don’t have any white males in them, but this is to be expected.”

Hesse says,

“Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences. We all obsess over our own scars until we start to think they’re symbols for broader injustice. We believe what we feel. And then we believe our feelings are facts.”

This kind of change is available to all of us if we’re willing to be wrong, if we’re willing to accept that we may be part of the problem and if we’re willing to put in the hard work to uncover the stories we tell ourselves.

The Price Of Facebook

We tend to believe that we are rational, profit-seeking, self-interested, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. Therefore the only things we would spend time and money on are things that we believe are worth more than they cost. Who would be stupid enough to consistently waste time and money on something that didn’t give more value back in return?

Look at all the time spent with our phones and social media. Over two billion people currently use Facebook. And since we only spend time and money on things that we believe are worth more than they cost — and since Facebook is free, no matter how minor the benefits, they’re still more substantial than the cost…right?

Well, as Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, says,

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

Well-funded marketers are working overtime to take advantage of our psychological vulnerabilities to confuse and deceive us about the anxiety, personal freedom, independent thought, outrage, democracy and certainly time that Facebook costs. Yet thanks to our bias for ignorance, if anyone asked, “why Facebook?”, many would reply, “why not?”

In the New Yorker article Why Facts Don’t  Change Our Minds, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how cognitive scientists are able to demonstrate just how ignorant we are of our ignorance — in this case when it comes to our stances on political issues. Multiple kinds of studies show that even when you give people evidence that refutes their beliefs, they still fail to revise them.The ignorance only begins to crack when people are instructed to explain, in as much detail as they can, the impacts of implementing their stance.

“Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.””

So, in the case of using “free” services online, if we spent less time swiping, liking and posting and more time trying to work through the implications of social media use, we’d realize how clueless we are and stop hurting ourselves.

Let’s try it:

Seneca said,

“Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.”

This is similar to a quote from Henry David Thoreau,

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Put another way, “the value of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” So let’s look at the record: what would your calendar say about what you value the most? Does the amount of time you’ve spent online align with your values? Is your life, as Seneca points out, worth less than the paltry friend requests, status updates and clickbait?

Ancient Stoic philosophers believed that the key to having a good life was to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

William B. Irvine, in Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, attributes Marcus Aurelius to saying,

“Because we have it in our power to assign value to things, we have it in our power to live a good life.”

By assigning things their correct value we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety. Consider a handful of values one could choose from to lead to a good life: honesty, hard work, confidence, love, creativity, adventure. How does time on Facebook support these or any other quality value?

For me, questions like these help me put Facebook and all other types of social media in their proper place. The information we consume changes us. Facebook isn’t free. Your life is more valuable than social media.

The Müller-Lyer Illusion and You

Which horizontal line looks longer?
Turns out it’s an illusion called the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The horizontal lines are the same length.

 

Here’s the thing: Even after we have measured the lines and found them to be equal and have had the neurological basis of the illusion explained to us, our conscious awareness still perceives one line to be shorter than the other. One can know that the two lines are the same length whilst at the same time experience them as different lengths.This has a serious effect on our conception of the nature of experience.

 

The world around you is not the way you think it is.
Scientists believe that the illusion works because a portion of the brain that perceives that the one line is longer is “modular” — a kind of semi-independent department of the mind which deals with particular types of inputs, and automatically gives particular types of outputs, and whose inner workings are not accessible to any rational thought from the conscious awareness of the person. Consider the implications: Outside of a simple illusion, how many of our waking hours are managed by a part of the brain that is impervious to reason? Something in us that is deciding before we have any say? As David Eagleman says in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,

“Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.”

 

In the face of such truth, one must learn to pause. Tara Branch calls it the Sacred Pause:

“Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.”

Realize your first thought is never your best thought. Your first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what you’ve already heard, always the unoriginal conventional wisdom and ridden with stereotypes and inaccuracies. To choose how to construct your own meaning means concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient; to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them and to outlast your impulses. To defeat your desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing is the only way you stand a chance at understanding anything.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about the world
The Müller-Lyer Illusion counts against the claim that seeing is believing. If seeing is believing, then when experiencing the Müller-Lyer Illusion, one would simultaneously believe that the lines were, and were not, the same length at the same time; but this is irrational — how could you simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs?

 

These contradictory beliefs cause cognitive dissonance. Feelings of discomfort result when there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors. Relief comes when something changes to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. In this case, you brain itself provides the relief — it chooses one line to be longer despite all evidence to the contrary.

 

So it is with the world we inhabit and our own beliefs. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, politics to religion, we can’t look at sequences of events without weaving an explanation into them based on what we already believe and have already experienced. When new ideas arrive that threaten your belief system, the truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to accept them. They are literally filtered out and might as well not exist.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about yourself
Ryan Holiday, from Ego Is The Enemy explains that we need to

“resist the comfort of reducing our lives into a story that retroactively creates a clarity that wasn’t and never will be there.”

Crafting a life story out of past events or future ones that don’t exist leads to an arrogant narrative—taking full credit for any good that happens, when in fact, you’re a small part of a large universe.

 

Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things, to see patterns that aren’t there, because there is just too much information to sift through and we need to think the world is not random and that we have control. So our minds take shortcuts by constantly choosing the most likely interpretation of what we see. The brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate.

 

Sometimes the brain’s constant predicting of what will happen is helpful, otherwise we would never have any reason to be confident about anything. In some cases however, it’s predictions are incredibly harmful to us. We jump to conclusions and become expert mind readers and fortune tellers, creating negative interpretations of events that are non-existent. These distortions of thought can turn a negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat despite little to no evidence. More thought distortions cause our brains to classify everything as either fantastic or awful, perfect or a total failure instead of recognizing everything is on a spectrum. We hang on too tightly to “should” statements about ourselves that we cannot live up to, piling guilt on ourselves. Then we cling to our “should” statements about others and are disappointed they don’t meet our invented expectations leading to anger and resentment.

 

Don’t accept your emotions as fact. Put thoughts on trial. Examine the evidence. You’re not perceiving what’s out there, you’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.