BIAS AND OUR RATIONAL THOUGHTS


Bias is the result of allowing one’s emotions to accept facts which are sympathetic and simplistic; and, to reject facts which are annoying, embarrassing, anomalous, or difficult to comprehend


Behavioral neuroscientist Don Katz at Brandeis University (MA) has concluded that each of our senses and our brain, act collaboratively. What this means is that all of the information that is fed into the brain ends up with just a single “best-fit” conclusion. We are oblivious to the fact we are thinking this way as our awareness focuses entirely on our uppermost thoughts, not on our collective observations and experiences which have been filtered through our emotions.

This implies a single biasing influence – perhaps sentimentality, a prior belief, or a long held animosity - has the potential to affect any of our well-considered opinions. From biblical times many have reflected “there are none as blind as those who will not see”. This is based upon the observation that people cannot be simply reasoned out of their opinions because it was not pure reason that formed their opinions in the first place. 

This social science finding seems to make sense: take the concept of tolerance as an example. Tolerance has become the litmus test for entry into the world of civilized behavior. Yet the popular understanding of tolerance seems to fall into a bias trap: significant intolerance towards those who hold different ethical standards. Tolerance then becomes no more than the acceptance of a particular emotional viewpoint. 

Jonah Lehrer a neuroscientist and the author of How We Decide (2009) sums up our thinking habits like this: “Our mind holds a messy network of different areas ... whenever we make a decision the brain is awash in feelings, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when we try to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence our judgment.”

A trivial example makes a deeper point.  Using product review forums on the internet, opinions provide an insight into our thinking. Consider the review comment: “This bistro has great food, delightful ambiance, and is convenient to get to”. We can infer from this the patron enjoyed their evening at the eatery, but we learn very little about the restaurant itself. The words (great, delightful) and the narrow perspective (convenient for whom?) are powerful indicators. They are essentially attitudes considered in comparison to the previous dining experiences of the reviewer – no more and no less.    

But our response to this is most often not: “I am pleased you enjoyed yourself”, but rather, “You are wrong: the service was terrible and the food was not hot enough” – again an expression formed from personal expectations. We prefer to think the beliefs of other people are wrong rather than accept opinions can be founded upon something as small as a single fact or personal experience. 

The same is true for more important topics. Everyone has limited knowledge, varied experiences, and wide-ranging emotional tendencies. And this is just as true for professionals in specialist subjects. Remember, few occasions render a person more confident about their fairness and open-mindedness than when they see bias in others.