Via Andrew Sullivan
The arguments people make are those that appear the strongest to themselves and the people who already agree with them. But such arguments tend to be meaningless to people who disagree.
How does this happen?
It starts with the universal desire to protect against threats to your self-image or self-worth. People are driven to view themselves in a positive light, and they will interpret information and take action in ways that preserve that view. The need to maintain self-worth is one reason we attribute our failures to external factors (bad luck), but our success to internal factors (skill.)
One line of research has found that self-affirmation—a mental exercise that increases feelings of self-worth—makes people more willing to accept threatening information. The idea is that by raising or “affirming” your self-worth, you can then encounter things that lower your self-worth without a net decrease. The affirmation and the threat effectively cancel each other out, and a positive image is maintained.
I find this kind of thing fascinating in a way even more than any particular political or scientific issue. Because it speaks to how human minds work, how they engage with the world. Every opinion or belief about science or religion or politics is hosted in a human mind, and human minds — so it seems — are riddled with biases that make it difficult to engage with the world as it ‘really’ is. And everybody does it; our minds all work basically the same way. This is why I’m fascinated by books like David McRaney’s, which explore cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies. Here’s a quote from the one I’m part way through — “You have a deep desire to be right all of the time and a deeper desire to see yourself in a positive light both morally and behaviorally. You can stretch your mind pretty far to achieve these goals.”
We all do this. We all engage in confirmation bias to seek out evidence to justify what we already believe, and ignore evidence that challenges it. We all use heuristics to simplify complex issues and get on with our lives.
But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless to try to be aware of these biases and overcome them. I like to think that if I’m wrong about something, I’d like to know about it, and am willing to hear reasons why I should change my mind. At least I like to think that I am.