We all suffer from the cognitive and behavioral biases I have been highlighting in this series. Lots more, too. We’re often “dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” These biases threaten any hope we might have of objective analysis, especially about the things that are closest to us and in which we have the most invested.
We don’t perceive the world nearly as well as we think we do.
Most especially, we aren’t as self-aware as we think we are.
If we are aware at all, we will frequently recognize these behavioral and cognitive weaknesses in others – especially the most egregious examples. But we will almost never recognize them in ourselves. That’s because everybody else is expressing opinions while we are stating facts. Or so it seems.
That reality – that failing – is bias blindness, our inability or unwillingness, even if and when we see it in others, to see the biases that beset us. Bias is everywhere. So is bias blindness, no matter how willing – and even eager – we are to deny it. As Jesus said: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.”
Bias blindness is the most significant bias of all.
As the Joker says, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
In the “Author’s Message” to his thriller, State of Fear, in which the hero scientist questions the global scientific consensus on climate change, the late Michael Crichton made the point that “politicized science is dangerous,” and then added, “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.”
From a large and representative sample, more than 85 percent of test respondents believed they were less biased than the average American. Another study of those who were sure of their better-than-average status found that they “insisted that their self-assessments were accurate and objective even after reading a description of how they could have been affected by the relevant bias.” On the other hand, participants reported their peers’ self-serving attributions regarding test performance to be biased while their own similarly self-serving attributions were free of that bias.
We are emotional more than rational. Our beliefs, preferences, and choices can and do change, often for poor reasons, and which choices often foreclose or limit later choices. Finally and crucially, these weaknesses are mostly opaque to us. They leave no cognitive trace.
We think that reality only applies to somebody else. We’re often wrong but never in doubt.
When Jane Curtin was asked if the person she was mimicking for a screen role knew that she was the source material, she replied, “I used to do my aunt when I was doing improv, and she always thought I was doing my other aunt.”
George Washington was well aware of his bias blindness, as reflected by his famous Farewell Address, yet another reason for his greatness.
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
Check out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical version from Hamilton, with Chris Jackson as Washington. It’s magic.
Warren Buffett put it really well. “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” And who better to illustrate it than Dr. Sheldon Cooper?
“Howard, you know me to be a very smart man.
Don’t you think if I were wrong, I’d know it?”
On our better days, we might grudgingly concede that we hold views that are wrong. The problem is in providing current examples.
A key theme in Shakespeare, for example, shows everyone thinking that they are smart enough to fool others, all the while being fools themselves.
That may explain why people on the freeway driving slower than I are dangerous idiots while people driving faster are…dangerous maniacs.
And why “everyone is stupid except me.”
Roughly to paraphrase the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, Hell is being apart from God. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” In that way, Hell is having your own way and being stuck with it. If we don’t find ways at least to mitigate our mental weaknesses and shortcomings, we will be stuck in Hell. We will have our own way, sure, but we’ll continue to be stuck with it.
Our own way is inevitably human. Unfailingly and frustratingly human.
Naturally the dying man wonders to himself
Has commentary been more lucid than anybody else?
And had he successively beaten back the rising tide
Of idiots, dilettantes, and fools
On his watch while he was alive
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
For the rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday
Bias, like wisdom and wealth, compounds, making “our own way” particularly excruciating. We each have 525,600 minutes per year to get things right…
…or at least righter; or even better, less wrong. Overall, things are bad enough that, usually, not stupid wins.
Fixing a problem begins with understanding there is a problem. We humans can be remarkably yet wrongly sure of our own rightness and righteousness, no matter what others might think or what is going on around us. Note the following, terrifying example.
If nothing else, I hope this series of illustrations has caused you to consider that you might not be as aware, as great, or as unbiased as you tend to think. I trust it has provided at least a bit of illumination of the bias problems that so routinely beset all of us.
We’re often wrong, but never in doubt.