“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
– Ronald Coase
We human beings are not rational. Our mind is flawed with shortcuts and biases. A common bias is the confirmation bias, where we tend to assign more value to evidence that supports our existing belief system and are more likely to disregard nonsupporting evidence. Being aware of the bias is already powerful, but this flaw in our mind can also be exploited in a great way.
Humans are naturally stubborn. Our minds are simply not made for rational behavior, but rather for quick and dirty survival. Although this has served us well in the past, it can lead to ineffective behavior in modern society. One of the flaws we encounter is the confirmation bias – something I have alluded to before when writing about perceptual vigilance.
Wikipedia describes confirmation bias as
“Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses.”
And you see this flaw in effect around the world. In the medieval ages, people used to famously burn witches on the stake after confirming their suspicion in trials that were impossible to fail. We scoff at the stupidity of these trials, yet are still surrounded by the same behavior.
People across the world are firmly grounded in belief systems that hold no rational evidence yet are chosen because they support their existing belief – either the government is corrupt, people of a different race are against you, the pharmaceutical industry is there to murder you or a divine presence will punish you with eternal hellfire if you eat meat on Sunday.
The irrationality from confirmation bias is that is always possible to find evidence to support a statement if you search for it long enough and take big enough leaps of faith along the way – which is why scientific evidence is now focused on being able to falsify a theory instead of confirming it through evidence.
The Pyramid of your beliefs
The bias is compounded by a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance – which is the physiological stress a person encounters when he or she encounters evidence that is contradictory to our existing belief system. As stress is typically avoided at all costs in our mind – we jump through hoops in order to change the evidence to match our belief system.
Over our lifetimes, our belief system builds up like from a solid foundation and build upon it with additional beliefs based on that foundation, like a pyramid.
Our core foundation – for example – can originate from a religious upbringing, which will form the foundation that a God exists that shaped us all and watches over us every day. Supporting beliefs built upon this can then be that you should not have sex before marriage, or you will be punished. Build upon that you could then be tempted to avoid sex altogether – because sex itself is a sin and so forth.
The more deep-grained this foundation is the more difficult it becomes to change the foundation with newly emerging counter evidence – unless you purposely-fully are aware of this effect and move through the stress to change it willfully.
Build your own reality
This does seem – at first glance – as a weakness that we must constantly fight at all costs. I, however, do not believe that fighting our natural mind is a wise path to undertake, as you will continuously stress your mind trying to fight your own nature. Not a great way to live.
Better yet – in my view – is to be one with your nature while also constructing your life in such a way that it is working in your favor. So how can cognitive bias be leveraged in a positive way?
It is to purposefully construct your cognitive belief system in such a way that the beliefs chosen will benefit you in a positive way when they are confirmed.
Some examples of excellent beliefs to internalize:
- People like me the way I am
- I will be succesful in my projects
- I am a loving, kind, father
- I am happy in my life
- I can handle everything life throws at me
Once you build your internal pyramid on these beliefs, your mind will automatically find evidence that supports this and reject any counter evidence – effectively bringing into your individual reality, which will bring forth more of the same and compound your life to greatness.
Contrasting to this, think of common beliefs people have that will exponentially downgrade their life into depression, weakness, anxiety and/or a general victim mentality that serves none:
- I am not good enough
- I am of lesser value than other people
- I will fail
- The world is against me
- Nobody loves me
These people, too, will automatically find evidence to support their beliefs – and effectively push their life into the gutter simply by their own confirmation bias.
Searching inward and finding the foundation upon which these beliefs are built will enable you to change it.
The Yellow Car
About a year ago – I replaced my boring, pearl-white, middle aged station wagon with a shining, bright-yellow sports car. Just for a change of pace. I choose the body paint to be yellow for the positive spirit it invokes as well as the association with sunshine and joy. I also liked that it would be a unique color that you rarely see on the road.
Or so I thought! Ever noticed that whenever you buy a car (or steal one in Grand Theft Auto!) that you suddenly see this exact car everywhere on the highway, parked at your neighbors and in every commercial ever! There are not actually more yellow cars on the road than before – but your focus has simply shifted to notice them more.
Choose to see the yellow car.