A Triumvirate of Anti-Thought

A Triumvirate of Anti-Thought

by Jason Haap

Confirmation bias, negativity bias, and the backfire effect:  these constitute a Triumvirate of Anti-Thought, and my fear is there isn’t anything we can do to stop it.

First, a quick summary of our Three Harbingers of The Intellectual Apocalypse:

  1. Confirmation bias: We are psychologically predisposed to interpret information in a way that supports what we already think. And, if something really challenges our positions, it’s pretty easy to find something that debunks our opponent and further emphasizes our sense of rightness.

I am an atheist, for example.  Sometimes, theists will try to convince me that it is “logical” to believe in God, if for no other reason than the universe must have been caused by something that exists outside of space and time.  When I refuse to accept the premise (because if God can exist without being caused, then why can’t the universe?), they will ask me to explain what “caused” the Big Bang.  I have no idea what caused the Big Bang (if the Big Bang is even what really happened, as some newer theories are starting to emerge).

To them, it is absurd that I would say “I don’t know.”  They think I’m dodging the issue because I don’t want to acknowledge the “logic” of their position.  I think they are just arguing for “the God of the Gaps,” simply inserting the supernatural whenever we find an area not solved (yet) by science.

In other words, though we each have the same conversation, and examine the same “evidence,” we each end up having our beliefs confirmed –  “we” are right and “they” are wrong.

  1. Negativity bias: This is a tricky one, though it probably served us rather well from an evolutionary standpoint. (There I go again with my atheistic beliefs, so apologies to any fundamentalist readers who believe in Creationism.)  Generally feeling a sense of contentment doesn’t help us protect the tribe from predators.  For millions of years, this trait helped us survive.  The problem, now, in a modern and developed society, is that “tribalism” mixed with “fear” generally leads to things like racism, or sexism, or an irrational fear of people with political views different from your own.

As a professional educator, I know it takes something like three or four positive comments to offset the impact on a student of one negative comment.  That’s because of the negativity bias.  The bad stuff just stays with us longer.  You could be having a great day, but if someone cuts you off in traffic on the way home from the office, it could ruin your evening.  We are hard-wired to focus on threats.

  1. The Backfire Effect: This one is particularly troubling.  From the perspective of reason, we should reject our beliefs whenever presented with evidence that shows us we are wrong, simply adopting the new (and better) position as our own.  In this, we are not wired for being reasonable!

Often, when people are presented with evidence that contradicts deeply held personal beliefs, they don’t simply change their entire view of the world from one breath to the next.  Instead, their brain goes into defensive mode, doubling down on the “wrong” belief, making it seem even more justified than before.

Taken together, we are naturally inclined to view those from another “tribe” as “threats.”  We are good at finding evidence to support the things we already believe, and when anyone tries to prove us wrong, we become more convinced how we are right.

What are we possibly supposed to do, given these realities?  The more globally connected our world becomes, and the more democratized access to media becomes through technology, the more we find ourselves surrounded by too much information.  When trying to make sense of everything, we do so in a way that convinces us that we are right, that others are a threat – and if someone tries to argue with us that fact proves our point.

I predict the Trump-ification of American politics is only the beginning.  The modern media circus we all love to hate is just the beginning of a brave new world.  My fear, however, is not that our mindlessness ushers this into existence.  Mindlessness can be remedied through education.  My fear is that our minds are what does this to us.

How do we possibly win a fight against the way the brain is structured?

Some of you reading this like to believe we have the ability to impact the world in meaningful ways.  We absolutely do.  I’m not saying we are incapable of doing things in the world.  But I am saying this trajectory in our public life, as demonstrated by the 2016 presidential race, might be inevitable – a natural conclusion of the Triumvirate of Anti-Thought.

Many of you, by now, are disagreeing with my conclusion.  That’s probably just your confirmation bias.  The backfire effect makes it difficult for you to stomach information that contradicts what you already believe.  And your bias towards negativity makes it easy to classify what I’m saying as “crazy.”

Of course, you may be tempted to turn that thinking right back onto me.  That would be unfair, however, since I am the one who is right and you are the one who is wrong.