5 min read

The Single Biggest Problem with Your Reasoning, Judgment, and Decision Making

Humans are inherently flawed in their thinking. This is not a problem. What is dangerous is our inability to recognize our own flaws and how this affects our work, relationships, and experience of well-being. There is a way out of this mental prison that enables intelligence and wisdom.

It is hard to change somebody’s mind on an issue when they hold a strong attitude with a high level of certainty. Are there any situations where a non-white person can be racist? Are there any conditions when it is okay for someone to take their own life? Should we consider having court jury members pass a certain threshold of cognitive ability before serving on a federal death sentence case? If we started society from scratch on another planet, would it be helpful for religion to exist? These are a few of the provocations that I have been pondering lately, and discussing with friends. It is a rare situation when everyone in the conversation holds low levels of certainty. Far more often, somebody holds nearly 100% certainty in their position.

Why People Find it Hard to Change

It can be frustrating to discuss controversial issues with people holding opposing views. What makes it frustrating is what scientists refer to as “myside bias” (also masquerading under the term confirmation bias). Myside bias is when people hold different standards for evidence that confirms or disconfirms their viewpoints. These are some of the ways myside bias manifests:

  • Selectively seeking out information that is consistent with what you think, know, or want to believe about the world.
  • Interpreting ambiguous information in a manner that supports your existing view.
  • Finding flaws in information that raises questions or disconfirms your existing view.

Sound familiar? None of us are immune.

Myside bias is a death knell blow to logical reasoning. It has been described as the single greatest hurdle in getting someone to change their mind. And somebody that doesn’t change their mind is no longer evolving.

The Problems with Hardcore My-side Bias

Intelligence has been defined by leading researchers as “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience.” This definition offers little insight into whether there is an intersection between intelligence and an honest, curious, humble pursuit of knowledge. There are two competing hypotheses about myside bias and intelligence. Perhaps highly intelligent people show greater myside bias. They are better able to contort information to fit their existing positions, and more attuned to discovering flaws in the arguments of those holding opposing views. Intelligent people are great storytellers who can deceive others as well as themselves that they are on a fair and balanced search for truth. Alternatively, highly intelligent people might be less prone to forming strong beliefs in the first place as they continually learn, upgrading their belief system along the journey. Across multiple studies, myside bias appears to be unrelated to a person’s intelligence or cognitive abilities.

Far more interesting than the link to intelligence is the discovery that people with the strongest myside bias are most likely to denounce other people for having this problem and the least likely to find any problem in their own reasoning. And we should be very scared of people especially in power positions, who think they are rational thinkers, free of biases. I don’t want a job recruiter or admissions officer who thinks they are bias free. I don’t want a police officer stopping motorists who thinks they are bias free. I want to be surrounded by people who realize their worldview is informed by unique life experiences and they have a herculean task of trying to minimize these influences.

Know the Cognitive Enemy

Let’s continue placing youth and adults in formal educational systems with consistent evidence that their intelligence can rise. But we must be honest with the gaps in our educational system. We are not systematically training civilians to be creative, critical thinkers who can discern their own distorted, biased reasoning. You deal with this on social media — someone tells you that your sources of information are flawed, your facts are wrong, and your interpretation of the data is wrong; whereas they are being objective. It happens when the data are ambiguous, such as how much race is a factor in police shootings this past year. It happens when the data are unambiguous, such as how previously incarcerated individuals are less likely to qualify for food stamps, public housing, financial loans, and less likely to be hired and even keep custody of their children despite having served their time. It happens with the news media, as they are paid to tell stories about data, that often go well beyond the facts.

Know that you, like me, and everyone else wishes they were a neutral arbiter able to separate facts and fictions in a carefully reasoned information search. Unfortunately, we are permeable to outside influences and internal preferences, and it is dangerous that we refuse to own up to this. Our existing knowledge, beliefs, and feelings on a person or topic shape our interpretation. Our past, likes and dislikes, distorts the present and future.

If you want to be a more intelligent, wiser thinker, there are a few steps you can implement regularly.

  • First, remember the presence of mental flaws. You are not the objective fact-gatherer that you think. You possess a distorted perspective just like everyone else does.
  • Second, take a deliberate pause when forming or expressing an opinion. The faster you react, the more likely you are going off instincts, the past, and how you want the world to be as opposed to what actually exists.
  • Third, do your best to treat interpretations and judgments as hypotheses. Test them. Ask – what sources and information have I prematurely ruled out? Try your best to find the best possible evidence against your initial thoughts. Do not stop until you find something because odds are you missed something and closed in on an answer or judgment too quickly.

Worst case scenario? You discover that you are too closed-minded, too easily swayed, and you are humbled. Best case scenario? You learn something new and showcase strength and virtue for testing your belief system. In the province of curiosity and intellectual humility, you cannot lose.

Provocation

If you hold the same beliefs as you do now in 10 years, consider it a problem. You don’t have to flip to the other side but if you are reading, observing, conversing, thinking, and interpreting, some positions should be stronger, others weaker, and perhaps even flipped or abandoned. What ideas are you holding in a tight fist that you should carry more loosely? What are you hoping someone or something could change your mind on? Share these thoughts with someone. You will be surprised at how much people enjoy spending time with someone who is persuadable.