Overcoming Brain Blindness
Part 2: How to overcome cognitive biases.
Posted Jun 27, 2020
In Part 1, we explored the dynamics of the Dunning-Kruger effect and its harmful impact on mental health and relationships. In Part 2, we will explore the question: If brain blindness poses such a threat, what can we do to circumvent it?
Researchers Rollwage, Dolan, and Fleming in their 2018 study found that people who hold more extreme/radical beliefs are usually are less aware of the weaknesses of their view, have a low level of insight, and dogmatically stick to their viewpoints even when presented with disconfirming evidence. Researchers believe this is due to low metacognition, meaning they aren’t able to reflect on their own thinking and performance. Those who possess more moderate views are able to be realistic about their own viewpoints. A good case in point is the ending scene from the documentary Behind the Curve on Netflix. Throughout the movie, filmmakers follow the “experiments” flat earthers conduct to demonstrate that the Earth, is in fact, flat and not spherical. The movie concludes with a group of flat earthers performing an experiment that contradicts their view. Their only response is to say, “Interesting. Interesting. That’s interesting.” In the face of disconfirming evidence, they persist in their erroneous belief. So, is this the fate for us all? You may not be a flat-earther, but you’re bound to be brain blind on something. Are you doomed to a life of ignorance? There is hope. Rollwage believes it is possible to increase an individual’s level of metacognition through practice—that it can be developed as a skill. I, too, believe brain blindness is a fixable problem. Below are a few suggestions on how to reach greater clarity in your thinking.
A Work in Progress
Your worldview ought to be a construction site, not a perfect, untouched cathedral. We are learning so much as a species and as individuals that the notion of arriving at certainty, or even coming near certainty is ludicrous. No matter how much you know, or have learned, or how old you are, you must, in principle, accept that you do not possess truth in its entirety. And that you are obligated to continually test your understanding and beliefs against new, and or, challenging evidence. At the risk of being cringey, there is a popular meme floating around on the interwebs that, apologies, I cannot accurately cite, but is worth quoting, “Normalize changing your opinion when presented with new information.” I fully support the sentiments behind this meme and hope it catches on in the broader culture.
Never Exempt Yourself From the Dunning-Kruger Effect
“Yeah, yeah, that’s a real thing, as it applies to those people, but not to me!” said some guy, somewhere, probably. Whoever this is, don’t be that guy! One of the counterintuitive results from Dunning and Kruger’s research is that even those with high IQ can fall prey to this cognitive bias. There is no intelligence immunization against this effect. We must acknowledge that anyone can possess cognitive blind spots—yes, even you. We must possess intellectual humility, meaning, it is not beyond belief that our reasoning may be flawed, or even biased. We must be open to that kind of examination, so as to come closer and closer to the truth.
Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant
Although, I encourage those who do not want to be brain blind to be self-critical, there are limitations to one’s own ability to police themselves. Therefore, verbalizing thoughts and beliefs to others is a great opportunity to receive feedback and constructive criticism. Where you are blind, others can see. Another person may see where you are under the invisible spell of a cognitive bias, or using logic poorly, or are being protective about a coveted belief. If they really care about you, they will point out your error with grace and tact. Embrace this act of kindness and entertain the possibility that your thinking may be off.
Familiarize Yourself With Common Cognitive Biases
Possessing a general knowledge of common cognitive biases can help you identify when a cognitive bias is present in your thinking. There are a number that you can easily look up, but below is a short list of my favorites that tend to show up more often than not:
- Confirmation bias: only paying attention to information and evidence that supports your pre-existing beliefs.
- Sunken cost bias: continuing with a course of action because of how much you’ve invested (e.g. time, money, energy) even though it would be better to move on.
- Outcome bias: judging a decision based on the outcome rather than the quality of the decision-making process.
Once you’ve identified a cognitive bias in your thinking, acknowledge it as such, and then re-examine your line of reasoning while being mindful of the bias. This opens up new avenues of thought. Where does the line of reasoning lead while keeping the bias in check? Do you arrive at a destination you aren’t accustomed to? This could be emotionally disruptive, so give yourself some time to process, but take courage, you have made the difficult, but all-important step of following truth and not your bias.
Ancient Jewish religious writers discussed wisdom (transliterated from the Hebrew word chokmah) as being incredibly valuable, more valuable than gold and silver. They described a wise person as someone who takes advice, loves life, and cherishes understanding. They also repeatedly stated, a wise person is humble. There are many definitions of wisdom, but at bottom, wisdom is the act of reflecting on one’s thinking and actions so as to learn and better oneself. We can take a page out of not only Judaism, but of many of many religious traditions that highly value wisdom. Let us strive to be wise.
As I’ve written in a previous post, reflective writing can enhance your cognitive clarity while simultaneously diminishing your brain blindness. Journaling forces you to review your words, motivations, actions, and outcomes. There’s much insight to be gained, but so much gets missed if we aren’t paying attention and reflecting. Make a habit of journaling about your day, week, or month with the intention of gaining insight.
Brain blindness is no respecter of persons. We can all succumb to its influence. So, it is not a matter of if, but when. And hopefully, when you are under the influence of a cognitive bias, you will be prepared to expose your brain blindness and move towards cognitive clarity. I urge you to think deeply in an ever-increasing shallow world.
 Rollwage, M., Dolan, R. J., & Fleming, S. M. (2018). Metacognitive failure as a feature of those holding radical beliefs. Current Biology, 28 (24): 4014-4021.
 Proverbs 16:16
 Proverbs 13:10
 Proverbs 19:8