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We Struggle With Objectivity: The Bias Blind Spot

A Peaceful Future Requires a Lack of Zealousness

There have been a number of high profile mass killings in the U.S. recently. And while we all agree that this is horribly tragic, and that steps should be taken to prevent these tragedies in the future, we disagree on how this can be accomplished.

This is arguably most apparent when discussing gun control. On one side, people are convinced that more guns leads to more violence. On the other side, people are convinced that they are more likely to be harmed, and that violence would heighten overall, if people did not have guns to protect themselves.

But, I think it is essential to solving these issues that we realize one key thing: We all are biased, and this clouds our interpretation of research that could solve these problems (and how true we believe it is), and probably clouds the original research in the first place.

For instance, research shows that when we hold a certain position, we agree more with research supporting that position than research not supporting our position. And we do this even when the research is presented in an identical way, and only the outcomes are varied. So, as a liberal, I would be inclined to view research as more credible if it is consistent with my liberal views. As aware as I am of my own biases, I still would struggle to NOT do this. My instinct (and all of our instincts) would be to find flaws in it if I do not agree with it, and to find right in it if I do agree with it.

Research also shows that we have a "bias blind spot." Research by Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, and colleagues, has found that people rate themselves as less susceptible to a variety of biases than others. These include things like the hindsight bias (the tendency to think we knew it all along more so after we know the outcome of something. See any poker player losing a hand and then saying they knew what you had as evidence of this), the planning fallacy (tendency to underestimate how long things will take) and the self-serving bias (tendency for all people to think they are better than average).

This research also shows that the more objective people think they are relative to others, the more they are likely to support violent solutions to problems (such as wars), and the more hostility they show towards people who disagree with them.

Following up on this, I have unpublished research (I am currently working on more follow up studies) showing that people perceive their worldviews as more like facts than opinions. (I will write more about these studies at a later date).

The idea that people basically perceive how they view things as mostly (entirely?) objective in most (all?) cases is consistent with the ideas and research of Daniel GIlbert at Harvard. Drawing on the philosopher Spinoza's ideas, he has argued that when we first hear something new, we have a tendency to believe it. That is, we both hear an idea and accept it at the same time. Only after we have time (and energy), and subsequently to hearing it and accepting it, do we then maybe go back and adjust this.

Put simply, we accept all things we hear that we do not have any prior knowledge of or opposition too. There is a truth bias.

Putting this all together, it seems like at some point, we just basically believe what we hear (children certainly have this tendency, and it carries to adulthood). We accept it as truth, just like we do the existence of rocks or stones that we can see. Then, this carries with us our whole lives, unless we go to fairly deep strides to undo what we have learned.

So, the result is we all tend to think what we believe is factual. And, we think that we are immune to the biases, mostly, that impact others. So when we hear something counter to our beliefs, we react not as though someone is sharing a difference of opinion, but is largely DENYING REALITY, and the flaw is with them, not us. It is sort of like they are telling us that a clock that is in the room, that we all can see, isn't there.

Getting back to violence and solving it, I think it is essential to solving social problems to realize this bias to think we are not biased exists, because if we do not, it is like both sides of an issue are banging their heads against the wall. They think we are just as insane as we think they are. But, I imagine, with effort we can all try and undo this tendency and try and be less biased than we are.

This surely is a better approach to paying tribute to the victims in these violent crimes than just arguing intensely in line with your position, for instance, for or against gun control.

That being said, I feel compelled to add that this also suggests that scientific research should be the basis for the "facts" when having these debates. The research is less biased than anything else we have. If study after study finds something, it is probably best to use that as a basis for forming your position.

I need to go take a nap now, as it was incredibly difficult - and seemingly exhausting- for me to not argue in favor of gun control in this post.

More from Nathan A Heflick Ph.D.
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