The curse of firm beliefs
Confirmation bias, social affiliations, changing minds, and how this all ties into the watch collecting community
“Rolex is not a real watch connoisseurs brand, it is merely an object used to flaunt wealth.”
“Rolex is the best watch brand to ever exist, with a rich history and a catalogue of classics.”
Which statement is correct?
I’d bet this has happened to you more than once: You’ve spent too long trying to convince someone that their opinion on a topic is wrong; You made rational arguments, you provided ample evidence and you did it all calmly and politely. Despite all that, instead of seeing your point or providing any rational counterarguments, they push back… still convinced of their position being accurate. By the end of your discussion-turned-debate, you are no closer to convincing them of anything, and there are strong odds that your relationship will have taken strain because of this exchange.
Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone opts for the latter.1
John Kenneth Galbraith
Coincidentally, I also stumbled upon an old article with these highly relevant quotes from Leo Tolstoy. Turns out, these statements seemingly led to the coining of a term ‘Tolstoy Syndrome’2 ; fascinatingly, this Wiki Page redirects to the page for ‘confirmation bias’ (which I have discussed before) - and this is probably something you’re deeply familiar with, if you’ve been reading my posts for a while.
These are Tolstoy’s words (emphasis mine):
“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life.”
“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.”
So what exactly are we observing here, and why? Why are smart people so unwilling or unable to change their minds, even when presented with cold, hard, facts? Why would anyone be minded to hold onto false or inaccurate ideas and beliefs anyway?
Why do we hold false beliefs anyway?
For us to exist on earth, we need a fairly accurate view of the world to ensure we can survive and coexist with other humans. If our view of reality is vastly different from the actual world, we would struggle to live our lives effectively.
If you think about this carefully, it makes a lot of sense. Every person has their own unique “reality”… as the saying goes3:
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are”
Now, despite our own unique realities, we tend to have sufficient overlap which ensures we can live harmoniously for the most part. For instance, if you ride a bicycle to work, you don’t actually have complete access to every aspect of reality, but your perception is usually accurate enough to ensure you avoid an accident and arrive safely. Of course, when there is no overlap, things go wrong; the car is supposed to yield, and it doesn’t, because the driver didn’t see you… that’s an accident!
Aside from all this pedantic stuff about truth, accuracy and tangible or verifiable information and objects… humans also seem to have a desire to belong.
In their book The Enigma of Reason cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.
“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves”4
If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious human design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be eaten by a cat! To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats - the human equivalent of the cat around the corner - this seems like a trait which should have been left behind as we evolved. The fact that we aren’t extinct, and still possess this trait, proves that it must have some adaptive function (according to Mercier and Sperber). According to them, this trait is is related to our “hypersociability.”
Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, Mercier and Sperber, suggest this trait persisted to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small groups of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others chilled out in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, and much to gain from winning arguments.
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