Other People`s Thinking


Biases flourish not so much from what you don’t know but from "knowing" so much that isn’t true


It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled

- Mark Twain - US Author  


Irrespective of our age, abilities, or knowledge, most of us consider our opinions to be both reasonable and well-founded.


But in actual fact our ideas are stitched together by factors which are both subjective and personal. Firstly, from the array of facts we receive into our brain we initially believe something is true, or not, based upon what or whom we trust, or distrust. These views are then modified by our personal observations and any discernment we may have. Finally, we then unconsciously search out and accept, or hide from and reject, further ideas to reinforce the beliefs of the people or groups we trust. 


Consequently we must be really careful about who, or what, we trust. But Group-think (sometimes called the Bandwagon Effect) can make us decide unthinkingly. Group-think is the urge to randomly trust in the ideas of one's social group, and to simultaneously fail to effectively use one's own intellectual processes. 


An example of the pervasiveness of Group-think is the way consumers of all ages are so often drawn towards products with familiar names. Products endorsed by designers, celebrities, TV programs, or brand names are highly sought after, despite obviously greater cost and little discernible quality difference. The phenomenon is also seen in many other groups, both large and small. It is intriguing that so many people don't seem to notice their beliefs are being biased in this manner. 


Those who want to manipulate others understand that Group-think is a subtle yet powerful tool that is difficult to resist. It seems a majority of us want to be regarded as fashionable, strong, or cool; or alternatively, as a talented, humane, or pleasant person; and for that reason we can be willing to harmonize our ideas with the beliefs of others. But the net result is that we accept the thinking of others in place of our own considered opinions.


Group-think also plays a part in scientific matters. The scientific method is considered to be the gold standard for discovering truth, but what is not recognized is that most scientific findings are founded the way regular folk shape their beliefs. Of course, scientists use exacting quality assurance procedures but ultimately the nature of complex science obliges researchers to decide, to some degree, what to accept as being true prior to the start of their research work. This is not a criticism but a statement of necessity.


Don't agree? The Understanding Science website produced by the University of California at Berkeley, funded by the (US) National Science Foundation, states*: Much as we might like to avoid it, all scientific tests involve making assumptions – many of them justified. Justified assumptions include the axiomatic or foundational assumptions that allow science to proceed in the first place - the world is real, humans are capable of understanding it, and the laws of nature are constant and uniform. So the reliability of most modern science is only as good as the additional, and often subconscious, assumptions that researchers make that are not, or cannot be, quickly tested.   


The big untested assumption that scientists make is that they have cornered the market on how to manage and reduce bias. This means, in their opinion, scientists are the only category of people capable of being unbiased. This common belief about science is important because social scientists know that what we conclude depends a lot on what we assume. Think about this when you read the latest scientific finding on your favourite website or get angry with someone for holding an opinion which differs from your own. Don't jump mindlessly on the bandwagon and believe all science serve up. Coffee used to be bad for us, then it was good, and recently researchers determined it may be bad again – it all depends on what was assumed.