DERP! Confirmation Bias is Probably Evolutionarily Adaptive


Doh! What does “evolutionarily adaptive” even mean?? Well, it’s explained quite well in a recent New Yorker review by Elizabeth Kolbert covering three recently released books—all of which have to deal with the human ability to reason…and the foibles we have in executing sensible reasoning despite empirical evidence that would point us in the right direction. Turns out that humans are innately more interested in arguing for a position than in the position being right.


Confirmation Bias: Three Book Jackets


In case study after case study and psych department experiment after experiment, researchers have discovered that “[e]ven after the evidence ‘for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,’” even when multiple points of evidence have been presented to contradict a personal belief system.


“As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?…”


This, of course, is a symptom called “confirmation bias,” which is described as “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” This would seem to be the source of all of our current political-polarity strife, and the excuse behind the accusation that Americans now “cherry-pick” their news headlines, or show biased preference for the news channels and sources that back-up their already pre-conceived political leanings in order to further prop them up and sustain their superiority.


Confirmation Bias—Fingers in Ears


Of the three books that the New Yorker article reviews—The Enigma Of Reason (Harvard Press); The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Riverhead Press); and Denying the Grave: Why We Ignore Facts That Will Save Us (Oxford Press)—all of them attribute evolutionary adaptiveness as the primary fault of our tendency to ignore facts in preference for superiority. The evolutionary hypothesis goes like this:


“ Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups…Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.”


Thinking Heads: Democrat-vs-Republican


As with so many evolutionary adaptive traits we’ve been stuck with, our reasoning skills haven’t adapted terribly well to the massively fast-paced development of complexity we’ve experienced in our species’ recent history. Winning an argument about who’s going to hunt mammoth for dinner hasn’t translated so well to complex issues like capital punishment, the viability of same-sex marriage, or whether progressive or conservative ideologies will best benefit a tribal community of tens-of-millions of people. As the authors of The Enigma of Reason point out, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”


The other thing that all the authors of all three books seem to agree upon? “There must be some way” to work-around our human evolutionary tendencies…there must be some way for humans to overcome our genetic and chemically-induced codes that lead us to accept irrational information processing. (A rush of the brain chemical dopamine is associated with the pleasurable act of self-supporting rationalization.) But what is the answer? What is the trick?


“Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science. ‘The challenge that remains…is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.’…These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon.”




Go read the whole article. I find this all fascinating. And of course, I immediately attempt to relate it all to the art of tarot reading… In my particular brand of tarot reading, and in the course of ascertaining the client’s issue or problem to be discussed, I most often advocate a reformatting of the question. I call this “getting to the core question,” and it’s a tactic used by a lot of contemporary tarot readers.


Getting to the core question involves refocusing what the client thinks might be the most burning question for which they want to hear an answer…and digging deeper to discover a facet that might have inspired the client’s original question. For instance, to a client who poses the question “Why don’t other men find me attractive?” the refocused question when reëvaluated might be:


“How important is physical beauty to your perception of what encompasses ‘true love?’”


…or: “What are some of the things you can describe about yourself that men might find attractive…and are those things any less valuable than the objectification of your physical beauty?”


…or: “What are some ways that you can radiate your “true” beauty that will make men take notice?”


These are only examples of how the original question might be transformed, and it will always be dependent on context clues provided or offered by the client. But what all these questions have in common, you might notice, is that they all focus on the client her- (or him-) self, as opposed to questioning the intentions and motives of “other men.” The reading should always be about the client in front of you, not about someone outside the reading (who necessarily can’t answer or defend themselves if they’re not present).


Thinking Heads: Information-against-Bias


The other thing each of these refocused questions does is place the burden of virtue (or value) assessment back on the client. Any one of these ‘refocused’ questions might, in fact, be uncomfortable for the client. But, in truth, the greatest breakthroughs happen when we are faced with breaking through walls… or facing questions that make us uncomfortable and which generate new self-reflection. It is entirely possible to be gentle and yet “push” the client to think in ways he or she might not have contemplated previously. You’ll notice that all of the questions above ask the client to think about the things she/he DOES consider to be attractive assets about themselves. This is positive reäffirmation. It can also help the client to shift the weight of self-esteem from the façade of outer beauty to the realm of appreciation for inner beauty. Granted, it begs the question of what society values… but this might be the next follow-up question that can be dealt with: “Despite what are the shallowness of societal representations of ‘beauty’ in advertisements and media, what is most important to you [the client] when faced with real-life scenarios of how beauty is portrayed…or actualized?”


Despite the confoundedness of the authors of these three new books on social science, there is an answer to the flummoxing problem of irrationality and polarized politics and alternative facts that bombard us on a daily basis… Applying virtue ethics is one means of wading through the muck. The real problem, it seems, is getting through the human traits of apathy and sloth that prevent us from going to a place of deeper evaluation…that prevent us from getting to our own core questions. A person has to be willing to be introspective about an alternative option or an alternative choice… Tarot reading clients have already gotten past the hardest part by stepping out of their comfort zones and asking for help in looking at the world differently. The challenge is getting demographic masses of people to do the same thing—actively desire to see alternative viewpoints—and it simply might not be in our human nature…






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Posted in Psychology of Tarot, Reading for Virtue, Reviews, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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