Humans do not simply form rational perceptions and conceptions of the world based on the data the access through their sensory organs. It is apparent, from the comedy of errors we call human history, that our rational abilities are frequently not as effective as we might wish they were. Sometimes, we fail to see the obvious, we misinterpret, we refuse to face reality. Naturally, if we are concerned with forming true beliefs, for example as part of our efforts with being a moral human, then it follows that such failings are deserving of our attentions.
Humans have a odd tendancy to filter their perception and memory. Our factual judgement is sometimes influenced by irrational forces that, upon close examination, have no sound relationship to the evidence in question. Often we believe simple what we desire to be true, or what we fear to be true. As humans we call this kind of tendancy ‘bias’.
Is there an evolutionary explanation to bias?
It makes intuitive sense that an organism struggling to survive might place emphasis upon thinking about threats and opportunties – perhaps our tendancy towards our desires and fears is related somehow. Yet it also seems counter-productive to warp our perception and form innacurate beliefs about such things, given that our survival often relies on making accurate predictions about dangers and windfalls. The explanation must be more complex.
Our capacity for rational thought is a partial result of two important evolutionary factors – the need to understand objects and learn to use them as tools, and the need to interact in a social group. Both these skills are unusually important to the human strategy for survival and success. To that end, we require the advanced ‘software’ to make use of our opposable thumbs and agile hands. We also require the advanced ‘software’ to navigate the complex strategic landscape of large social groups. Once such intellectual capabilities are in place, humans could build on them to perform more advanced tasks, like development the tools of the hunter and gatherer, skills of agriculture, contruction and building, mechanical devices, legal systems and eventually government. Most of our achievements, including the planning of such feats, require a brain that is very advanced in learning the physical properties of its environment and the social dynamics of its group.
When performing physical comprehension, a human’s objective is to understand anything that might be conceivably useful about an object, such as where it might be found, how it can be made, or how it interacts with other objects. The more accurate this knowledge, the more likely that an organism can use its hands or other manipulator to control its environment effectively. And, in turn, the more likely that it can use these objects to maximise its survival and its chances to reproduce.
In essence, the part of the human brain that deals with the physics of our surroundings is generally rational and relatively free from bias. We seem to develop schema based on our informal experimentation with our surroundings, and then abstract a general understanding of objects and events later use. Here the closest encounter with bias is the exaggeration of threat and opportunity information – we notice threatening things and desirable things more, and background everything else.
However, humans get a great deal of their information, including information about physical objects, from other humans. Dealing with other objects who are as complex as we are requires very sophisticated ‘software’. Humans are reactive to one another. Individuals and groups exchange information, strategic alliances shift, and social information is polluted communication with lies, exaggeration and feedback effects. Rational conclusions based purely on data are not always the most successful, partly because the data is frequently polluted or unreliable. In such circumstances, non-rational strategies can actually become viable from an evolutionary point of view.
Why isn’t bias an evolutionary dead-end?
Why would humans have such strange facets of their mental processes? Well, there are at least two obvious reasons. Firstly, bias is a social strategy. Secondly, bias is a catalyst for variety of thought.
In a group, particularly where it has a combination of free-riding/anti-free-riding and betrayal / anti-betrayal, information can lead a group to punish or even attack members. In this case it makes sense to strongly oppose information that gives a negative impression of one’s self, one’s allies, or people one identifies with. Lies, misdirection and insults all create immense damage if they go undetected, and so erring on the safe side in regards to one’s own self, interests and allies makes some sense for survival. The problem here is that our evolved instincts are clumsily applied even when innappropriate, and usually without us concsciously realising it.
Also, bias creates generates differences in thinking between subgroups that can be advantageous in comparison to a homogenously rational population. The difference in thought generates differences in behaivour that essentially ensure that the entire group does not make the same fatal mistakes at the same time, when for example the rational conclusion turns out to be the wrong one. Perhaps a medicine that appears to treat illness causes delayed death, and the social biased enemy of the village medical expert remains well enough to save others from death, or to at least carry on some of the genetics contained in the village. Variety is strength, and bias can sometimes strangely aid it.
In what way do we distort the data and display bias?
The first principle of bias is that when we experience bias, we are generally not aware of it, because it is a part of our thought process and not an external force acting on us. However, it is possible infer problems in our own thoughts by observing human bias in general, and by carefully scrutinising our own thoughts. It is also possible to improve our comprehension of social information by understanding the bias of others. Understanding bias is one of greatest contributors to effective complex thinking.
There is considerable scientific and literary explorations of bias. Browsing lists of common biases is an excellent starting point. (Link to wikipedia – cognitive bias) Theory isn’t always effective alone, however. Careful observation of human behaivour in everyday life is also important.
Supplied here are a few conceptual tools to help comprehension and categorisation of bias.
-For example, press releases from interest groups will exclude any information that disadvantages that interest group (deliberate selection bias).
-Network bias can be minimised by understanding the bias filters that have been applied to information we digest, or ideally by attempting to obtain information from unbiased sources. A variety of sources may assist comprehension, but does not in itself mitigate social bias.
-For example, financially comfortable people may view malnutrition as a smaller problem than it is because they rarely encounter it where they live and socialise.
-Location bias is corrected by exposure to new and varied experiences, and examination of statistics and more objective sources of information.
-Commonly we ‘scan’ information we are exposed to and base our acceptance or rejection, our memory of the information, and our assignment of its significance, on irrational social or strategic factors.
-We also ‘scan’ not only the information itself but its implications. For example, we would be higly resistant to the idea that a group is performing poorly if the implication is that the group might need to be reformed and we would risk losing our position and social status during reforms.
-Implication bias and scanning are vitally important mechanisms to understand when dealing with people’s opinions on ambiguous personal, social or political topics, because people will commonly reject ideas because of their implications, and then attempt to present another supposedly rational reason for their rejection.
-Communication bias is conceptually different from perception/memory bias, because initially only our communication, not our thoughts are filtered
-However, communication bias often leads to perception bias because expressing an opinion or belief publically appears, for example in experimental psychology, to encourage that belief to be adopted internally (social commitment bias).
Common focal points of bias
-Role – by conflating one’s self with one’s role, bias can be introduced. For example attacks upon a role can be seen almost as if one’s self is under attack. This may have a rational component, as a strategic attempt to protect social status for example, but will frequently be applied even when strategic concerns are not present.
-Empathic – empathy is a powerful force for altruism. We see another human or animal experiencing something that we ourselves experience, and we feel a bond with them. However, this can lead to bias because it extends subconscious perception of the self, and the bias that comes with it, to another person whom we either interact with or whom we identify with. Where it leads to irrational interpretations of data/information, it can be called empathic bias.
-Group – In a similar way, the self can be extended to a group. Many of the bias towards oneself can apply to the group in a similar way. This bias can be partly motivated by strategic considerations, but still appears to be present even when strategic considerations are rationally not a factor. For example, we have a strong tendancy not to accept criticisms of the profession that we are a part of. We also are less willing to accept arguments supporting certain policy measures if we believe that such a policy may harm our profession or the status of our profession.
-Possessions – In a similar way, the self can be extended to one’s possessions. Ownership of possessions induces scanning and implication bias, in particular bias designed to protect, justify and celebrate that ownership. Implication bias means that any proposition that involves a reduction or threat to possessions is usually viciously rejected or opposed, even where the possession carries no utility, hedonistic or otherwise. This does not imply all possession is a result of bias, because some possession is neccessary for functional human society. It merely suggests a tendancy for all possessions to be defended even if defence is irrational.
In opposition to bias
While bias is evolutionarly understandable, there are major risks associated with our carrying a tendancy to irrational thought, and so there is a constant opposing evolutionary and social force – the need to fight deception; the need to prevent disastorous mistakes. A social group engaged in bias is engaged in self-delusion. Delusions invite disaster.
All humans have some combination of social bias and the desire for truth. Their interaction is complex, individually varied and highly based on socialisation and habit. The strategy of being opposed to bias, of searching for and speaking the truth, is extremely powerful and usually remains valid in most cultures. However, when fewer and fewer members of a complex society choose this strategy, general knowledge becomes filled with self-dellusion and the society begins to crumble.
For those moral people that care about society, humanity and life, it always remains their duty to seek out the truth, eliminate bias, and communicate the truth where it does not cause harm or danger.
In some ways, the evolutionary strategy of truth might be compared to the life ethic, in the sense that it is central to the survival of a complex society. Certainly, a moral life requires accuracy of beliefs. However, it should not be imagined that only moral people have a monopoly on the strategy of truth. Immoral people may in some cases adopt a strategy of pursuing knowlege and speaking the truth, while also including a plentiful supply of threats, aggression, or complete indifference to the lives of others.
In any case, a moral person should always remember that bias is the enemy of reason.
Methods for fighting bias
-Become a student of bias and how it works. By studying bias (part of the field of psychology) it can be revealed in others and in ourselves, and then accounted for and reduced
-Be self-critical (in a constructive way) and question your own assumptions and mental habits
-Become a student of logic (a field of philosophy) and learn to spot fallacies / logical flaws in statements
-Understand social groups and their bias, desires and agendas in order to understand how the information being presented to you is influenced or distorted
-Pursue knowledge from a variety of sources, and seek to understand the bias of those sources.
-Seek out sources of knowledge that have a strong interest in knowing the truth of a matter, but are indifferent to the specific content of the truth.
-Seek out sources that have an ideological or moral value of the truth and knowledge.
-Avoid getting stuck in a social bubble by seeking knowlege from reliable sources outside your regular social group memberships
-Appreciate nuance and don’t accept simple explanations without further research
-Do not become overly attached to possessions, particuarly if they are unneccessary. You are not your possessions. They are just temporary tools.
-Do not become overly attached to your social role – you are not your role, and you can always find a new one. Perform it with excellence but know when to move to something new.
-Believe in personal growth and learning, and fight against the habit of thinking only what is comfortable.
Read and think about bias often, including your own, and with concentration you will develop your own unique set of techniques for fighting bias.
The Special Bias of Unneeded Possessions
Possession and ownership is an underestimated source of bias in human reasoning. When we possess or own something, or we have the expectation that we will possess or own something in the future, our reasoning is altered. We subconsciously extend our perception of ourself to our possessions, and perceive threats to them in the same way as we perceive threats to our safety or social wellbeing.
That is not to say that possessions, or in particular the concepts of possessions, can or should be discarded. The use of possession and property rights is neccessary in a society where equipment and goods are likely to be misused or destroyed by free-riders, betrayers, or simply those with a tendancy to vandalism. Through a system where control of items is legally protected, we prevent conflict and the integrity of much that is required for life.
However, this system was not intended to facilitate greed but to protect their basic needs and to reward them for their service to others. When this same system is distorted to protect not meritous ownership but rather the endless expansion of wealth, the distortions start to do great harm. And at a personal level, our greed and fear, our desire for more and more possessions, makes wretches out of noble people. It is important for us to try to understand this.
When our hedonistic tendancies get the upper hand, we reinforce our weakness and our preference for short-term benefits over the long-term. In our state of weakness, we will quickly create an explanation or narrative why our possessions are neccessary, or how the harm they do is somehow not so bad as we thought. We explain away our rational application of morality and overwrite it with a twisted, defensive facade. We exclaim our reasoning to others and become further committed to our explanations. We lose touch with the real reason why we do things and habituate ourselves in believing a fantasy about our own lives.
In the real world, however, our lust for possessions does real damage. We reinforce a market weighted towards the production of worthless trinkets, rather than ingenious and useful items designed to serve actual human achievements. We fail to reate a strong economy built around noble pursuits and pasttimes – thriving communities, good health, knowledge and research, space exploration, security and safety, art and culture – whatever our preference of noble pursuits, they are lost. And in pursuit of the most trivial of pleasures, we squander our resources, devastate fellow species habitats, destroy great natural beauty, and threaten the natural processes that provides all the conditions needed for humans to survive.
Unneccessary possession is not just about hedonism. The greatest, most powerful, component to the hoarding of the useless is social. In our society of ‘creature comforts’, people of considerable wealth will surprisingly pursue the aquisition of more wealth and possessions far beyond the point where it adds any hedonistic pleasure. Thanks to mass production, rare pleasures reserved for only kings and queens are now commonplace in any home in many countries; the hedonistic returns for wealth are now diminishingly small. What people really crave is a way to mark their social status, and to elevate them in the eyes of their peers.
This force is what creates the most extreme distortions of possession bias at all levels of wealth – the pursuit of a mask to convince others to respect them. We embellish our house with luxury, we cloth ourselves in extravagence, we spend huge resources on vehicles, sometimes we even travel to places we don’t particularly enjoy, all in the hope that we will gain something to tell our friends our show off to people in our community.
When we walk down this path, we will go to extreme lengths to defend it. We will deny to others and ourselves that our possessions are crutches for our personality. We will treat any threat to our wealth or possessions in a similar way. We will scan social and political opinion, and distort our own ability to process information in a way that protects our possessions the best. In time, and surrounded by others with the same crutches and bias, we come to expect that our social and political environment should be centred around the protection of our crutches. We come to treat anything less with great suspicion and resentment.
All this is understandable, normal, human, and above all incredibly harmful to ourselves and others. It is a great loss because it smothers and suffocates real relationships between people. Relationships between character, intellect and personality become an interaction of our superficial images. Community and friendship withers.
What is the secret to avoiding this pitfall? It is knowing that it is all a psychological illusion. An illusion that falsely tell us that we are sustained by comfort. We are not. Comfort is nothing to us. Inside you is the strength of the wildest animal in the wilderness, and the wisdom of the generations. What sustains you is purpose. A noble purpose whose acheivement or even struggle for brings more satisfaction than any hedonistic pleasure can ever bestow.
It is an illusion that says to us that if we have another useless item, people might start to respect us. We as humans choose what we regard as social status. Our possessions are not trophies to put on display, they are a mask to hide behind because we are afraid that alone, judged as we truely are, judged by how we behave and treat others, we are not enough; that we are not worthy of our peers’ respect.
When you face this fear, when you choose to show your disdain for possession as a marker of social status, others may resist or strike out, because it activates their own fear of being without their mask. If you can, show respect for things in them that are truely worthwhile. Some, even amongst those who are hostile, there are many who will respect you more for your courage. For those who do not, it is simply time to branch out and begin to find new social connections of more worth.
All belongings are only tools. When we mistake an inanimate tool as an extension of ourselves, or fool ourselves into believing that it is worthy to be loved, craved, or desired, the mind will twists itself into defend the neccessity of the unneccesary. It rendering ethics asunder, distorting human judgement, brings conflict where there is none.
In the end, the secret is to know that the things you own often really own you. It is avoiding making yourself slave to fleeting pleasures, superficial status symbols, or a hoard of pretty, shiny, useless junk.
Control what you need to defend your life and the life of others, and let go of your other possessions if you can. They are a burden, not an asset. Your personality, your deeds, your knowledge, your friends, all need your attention more than your mask. You do not need your mask – discard it!
It is in good works for others that we find authentic and lasting satisfaction. The things that really matter cannot be owned – noble deeds, friendship, passionate love, your children, your fellow human being, the life of planet Earth – these things are not possessions, they are much greater, they are the purpose of our life.