You Know, the Smartest Guy in the Room!
A prominent leader is in the news. Again. This time, the headlines scream of his stupidity, or ignorance, or ability to destroy the very world we live in.
What do you do? Especially since you know this guy and have followed his antics in the past.
Worse, you may even work for him.
You rush to Twitter to see if he’s trending. Oh boy, is he! The tweets are vicious. Beyond vicious, they should never be published, but then, that’s Twitter for you.
And your angst over this leader grows with each new tweet. You find yourself immersed in this cesspool for hours. You call your friends. They agree with your assessment. You jump on Facebook; it’s filled with the same vitriol. Clearly this person is a true menace to society.
What just happened?
Your severe case of confirmation bias just peaked and you fed your preconceived concepts and attributions (another theory for another post) about this leader to the point of gluttony.
Why do we do that?
Dr. Shahram Heshmat explains: “Confirmation bias occurs…when people would like a certain idea or concept to be true…and end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true.”
Confirmation bias explains that we tend only to embrace news, ideas or information that are consistent with our own deeply held beliefs about someone or something. Simultaneously, we will most likely reject or ignore views or stories contrary to our own beliefs. A contrarian viewpoint just might cast doubt on the veracity of what we believe after all.
So apparently, we’re not objective. About anything, really. In fact you might say, we’re prisoners of our own assumptions.
Pick a hot topic. Any topic:
· Gun control
· Vaping or CBD or Kratom
· Democrats or Republicans — either will destroy the nation
· God is real. God is a myth.
· My boss is an idiot. My boss is a genius.
Is there a solution to this very human condition? Let’s consider a few prescriptions.
Intentionally seek out opposing viewpoints
Because if you start with total certainty that your opinion or experience is the end-all-be-all on the subject, your views won’t change. Regardless of anyone’s persuasive prowess.
How might this work?
Well, intentionally invite a challenger into your in-group. Someone who fits the bill of the loyal opposition or the intellectual irritant. Someone who safely has permission to play the devil’s advocate. Someone who will force you to consider alternative solutions or viewpoints.
Give serious consideration to the new idea. I love this thought from F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Admittedly, this is the most difficult prescription I can offer. Stephen Covey observed that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
That’s also a decent reframing of the definitions of “hearing vs. listening.”
Seek out experts. And listen to them.
Right. So who’s an expert? And why do all the experts disagree with one another?
Biased experts too have fallen prey to confirmation bias. Too many scholars focus their work on the notions they already believe to be true.
So, not them.
· Find experts who have proven trustworthy in their field — over time. They have a track record of accuracy and a firm commitment to finding truth.
· Find experts whose vast catalogue of experience endows them with credibility beyond reproach.
· Find experts whose knowledge base is broad, not narrow. Who invite critiques of their work and always, always seek “the real.”
· And finally, find experts whose data come from a large base, not a small anecdotal base. One-off stories of success or failure are most often just that, outliers that don’t represent the full truth.
Press PAUSE before sharing your own opinions.
Physicians famously subscribe to the Hippocratic oath, “First do no harm…”
Indiscriminate spewing of your posts and opinions could become contagious; don’t start a personal gossip contagion.
A modern translation of an ancient proverb says, “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” (St. James)
Evidence all around us suggests that confirmation bias is a driving force in every facet of our public life: from the looming political campaigns to cancel culture. And likewise, in every personally held belief we own.
Tolstoy rather clearly understood. “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 if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already without a shadow of doubt.”