How the Confirmation Bias Makes Us Human: Levi Asher, Barbara Oakley, and Me

A couple months ago, I interviewed Barbara Oakley about her upcoming book: Pathological Altruism. While she agrees that altruism is a helpful evolutionary adaptation, she argues that it can also be used against us.

The following month, fellow blogger Levi Asher reviewed another one of Barbara’s books, Cold-Blooded Kindness. In the process, he said something that made me start thinking about human nature, the way we look at the world, and how none of us are really living in an objective reality.

On the political front, Oakley’s books seem to point to a tough-love attitude towards the world, and perhaps to a Tea-Party-esque political stance regarding entitlements and the social safety net. This Barbara Oakley interview from Trending Sideways also suggests that Tea Party beliefs go along with this theory of psychology[.]

He was referring to these words from my interview with Barbara:

The reality is that unions and academics can be, and often are, as predatory and self-serving as businesses. Yet they fly under our radar, because they pretend to serve “the people” instead of just their constituents—and themselves.

What was so revealing about this exchange? For me, it all comes down to what could be seen as a fundamental flaw in the way the human mind works. Levi assumed from this piece of information that Barbara was a hardcore conservative. But as we shall see later, his willingness to use the word “perhaps” in the quote above actually shows a fair amount of restraint.

It turns out that his assumptions were incorrect. Her political position is actually quite a bit more nuanced. I’d like to thank both Barbara and Levi for allowing me to share parts of an email exchange between the two of them to elaborate on this.

Barbara: You have to remember that the malfeasance with budgets and money by our government puts Enron to shame. I’m a social liberal who also understands that if we are not prudent and fiscally responsible, everyone suffers under the inflation and loss of confidence in our financial system that results. You can always focus on groups that deserve money—and they truly deserve money. But if you add up all the money from everyone who deserves it—it’s simply unsustainable.

Levi: I am a fiscal moderate (with several years of experience working for JP Morgan and other banks on Wall Street as a software developer,, which gave me a lot of firsthand knowledge of the financial industry). I understand the critique of the nanny state, and I certainly understand the frustration with our current budget. But I don’t understand how any American would prefer to see our social safety net diminish before asking our wealthier fellow citizens (and, let’s face it, some of these citizens have become very, very wealthy) to pay more taxes.

I’m no expert on economics but I know a little, and I think where I disagree with what you just wrote specifically is when you speak of inflation as if it were a sign of a diseased economy. In fact, as all modern economists know, inflation is a necessary result of a healthy economy.

Barbara: The real issue is that safety nets are great, but they come at an enormous cost, both financially, and as societal disincentives. So we have to be careful about them. They shouldn’t disappear! But we just need to be careful.

Some small inflation is inevitable, sure. And you’ll start reading a lot about how useful inflation is in much of the liberally-oriented media, now, because that supports what everybody clearly sees is going to happen. But the people who really suffer under inflation are the poor on fixed incomes…Also, runaway inflation is never the hallmark of a healthy society. Ever.

Later on, Levi began to realize that his position wasn’t that different from Barbara’s.

Levi: Now that we’ve talked this through some more, I think we are not as far apart as it originally seemed. Yes, I am also frustrated by people who think they are entitled to have health care served up to them for nothing in return. Aggravating!

And yes, I agree with you that runaway inflation is never good. Absolutely. I do think, though, that we should stop making “inflation” a dirty word in general.

I don’t necessarily share the political opinions of either of them, but this is beside the point. I also want to make it clear that I didn’t post this exchange to make Levi look bad. In reality, I think that he runs a very good blog and I would recommend it to anybody who reads on a regular basis.

Instead, I’m posting this to draw attention to what could be considered a fundamental flaw in human reasoning. There is an old math joke that draws attention to the way we as humans look at the world. The following version of the joke comes from Math Teach.

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer were traveling through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.
“Aha,” says the engineer, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.” “Hmm,” says the physicist, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”
“No,” says the mathematician, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black!”

The mathematician is actually right, but this isn’t the way that most of us look at the world. There are very good reasons for this. I am currently in the middle of an interview with Randy Johnson that will elaborate on why.

Suffice it to say, it’s usually good enough to reach the conclusion of the engineer or the physicist in this joke. In fact, insisting on discussing only what you know for certain usually slows things down, and probably would have been a disadvantage during human evolution.

But the example above clearly demonstrates that our assumptions can also get us into trouble, especially when talking about politics. Levi was suffering not from ignorance, or a lack of intelligence, but from a fundamental bias that all human beings possess. It is called the confirmation bias, and it is one of many well known biases that we human beings suffer from.

The confirmation bias causes us to continually reaffirm our own beliefs. We start with a belief, and we look for the information to support it. We unconsciously ignore the information that contradicts our position, and we selectively remember the facts that most strongly support our position. We make these errors continuously, on a daily basis, and we can’t turn it off.

Things get even more interesting when you start tinkering with how information is presented. It turns out that if the information is presented to you in pieces, rather than all at once, you become even more biased. We become more committed to our beliefs because we’ve spent more time believing them. We don’t want to go back and change our beliefs.

Why would such a fundamental flaw exist in human nature? The most convincing answer is that it isn’t, fundamentally, a flaw. Instead, it requires us to rethink why we think in the first place. We like to tell ourselves that the goal is the truth. But the confirmation bias hints at something else. Rather than looking for the truth, we are actually trying to avoid more costly errors.

In other words, it’s better to believe something that is false than it is to disbelieve something that is true. Your brain is playing the numbers game, running the strategy that’s best for survival and reproduction, not for truth.

A remarkable consequence of this is that it is possible for us as human beings to simultaneously believe two contradictory things at once. Consider something else that Levi said during his email exchange with Barbara:

I was recently talking to an older member of my family who is a conservative and, therefore, against government spending – and then it slipped out that he’s living on government disability! So, you say that many leftists appear to be in a cult — well, there is a freakish sense of unreality on both sides.

We call this hypocrisy, which isn’t a nice term. Indeed, believing too many contradictory things at the same time not only makes you look idiotic, it can actually be harmful. But to some extent, we are all like this. Our brains are forced to make assumptions about the world everyday. We don’t live in the black and white world of pure logic.

Two beliefs can both be beneficial for us at the same time, even if they aren’t logically reconcilable with one another.

This astounding ability could very well be the reason the human mind is capable of imagination. Creativity, innovation, and guesswork all require the ability to reach conclusions based on incomplete data. This is part of the very foundation that makes us human.

But be wary. It also means that what you think of as reality, isn’t.

One Final Thought

After showing this blog post to Levi, he responded with the following:

One point I would like to clarify, though: when I originally wrote that I thought Barbara’s ideology seemed Tea Party-ish, I didn’t mean that as an insult. I’m a liberal and the farthest thing from a Tea Partier myself, but I have good friends who drink the tea, and I can respect their enthusiasm and strong sense of conviction even when I disagree with them. And, even more importantly — this may actually cut directly against the central point of your article — nothing Barbara said in our enjoyable email conversation made me think that I had misunderstood her viewpoint on economics when I called it Tea Party-ish. Certainly, I learned that she is a very nuanced thinker, which I never doubted.

But it still seems to me that, if you divide the United States electorate into two opinion groups, the cut-spending group and the raise-taxes-on-the-wealthy group, Barbara would be in the former…, and that was what I originally meant when I said I guessed that her economic opinions are Tea Party-ish. Nothing in our later conversation really changed my opinion about this — though I do think I ought to have chosen my words more wisely. In this light, Carter, your reasonable rebuke is the rap on the knuckles I deserve, and I will try to write more carefully in the future. Thanks!

He very well may be right. Perhaps I wanted Levi to provide me with an example of the confirmation bias. In doing so, I may have been suffering from the very same bias myself.

Either way, I think I’ve made my point.

Peter Spinogatti Says Psychology is More Like Math Than Science, and that Unhappiness is a Self-Referential Paradox

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