How to avoid bias when arriving at conclusions in life…
Short answer: YOU CAN’T!
Sorry for the loud ALL CAPS but the gist of this post is that we can’t avoid our bias when we arrive at conclusions so feel free to skip reading and move on to more pressing matters.
Let me start with a story. I have this centering rule on social media where I refuse to engage people in debate be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or even blogging. I strongly feel that this medium is an unhelpful way to dialogue when it comes to issues where disagreement abounds. Some people feel it is there obligate to show how right they are or how stupid _____________ is and simply cannot help themselves. I can. Except when I can’t.
I GOT BAITED IN AND COMPLETELY FELL FOR IT!!!!
A well-known media person I follow commented on Facebook how the recent Titans’ draft pick Jefferey Simmons is a good character guy according to his old Mississippi State defensive coach Bob Shoop. The controversy surrounding Simmons is that when he was in high-school (or shortly afterwards) a video surfaced of him hitting a girl in the face while she was on the ground. It looked horrible and was an atrocious act but it seems in the three years since he has rebuilt his life, made the right steps, gone through counseling and is a good person.
Now…a guy commented on this person’s timeline essentially that Simmons shouldn’t be allowed to play for the Tennessee Titans because of his past action. I engaged him on this and tried to offer perspective from a different side (idiot move on my part) and it became the atypical back-and-forth tennis match we all hate to watch unfold on social media. Another guy chimed in and offered the same narrative and so now it was two guys against me.
Man I am stupid for engaging.
However, the first guy who commented said something that I didn’t engage because I don’t think he fully understands what he is saying and it would be a waste of time for me to give him context:
” [So and so] and I are an unbiased observer of what we see.”
Did you read that? He said he and this person he did not know were “unbiased.” I chuckled a bit, sent a yawning gif (because that solves everything <<<insert immaturity emoji here>>>) and moved on.
The truth seems to point that we always will have a bias in us as long as we live. John Locke is famous in his Essays on Human Understanding for building up the Latin term tabula rasa which means, “blank slate.” Consider this quote from him:
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.
There is more to this philosophical discussion but essentially Locke says we are born with a blank slate and then we receive our ideas from experience (Hume was similar). That’s all well and good but even Locke owed much of his epistemology to the Baconian thought of the time which lead to staunch rationalism that pervaded for centuries. Do you see what I did there?
Even Locke’s blank slate (some say it started with Aristotelian thought) did not start with a blank slate. It had location, context and a backstory.
Even what I am sharing in this blog post has bias in it. I simply cannot help myself. That doesn’t mean we can’t arrive at conclusions, but it does mean those conclusions come from a certain context.
Kendra Cherry wrote an amazing post called, “How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act.” She defines the problem really well:
A cognitive bias is a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. The human brain is powerful but subject to limitations. Cognitive biases are often a result of your brain’s attempt to simplify information processing. They are rules of thumb that help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed.
When you are making judgments and decisions about the world around you, you like to think that you are objective, logical, and capable of taking in and evaluating all the information that is available to you. Unfortunately, these biases sometimes trip us up, leading to poor decisions and bad judgments.
I recommend you read her post as she highlights eleven different types of bias that distorts our thinking. The one I want to highlight is “confirmation bias” which is, “…favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.”
I am new to this field of thinking but it seems that I encounter this bias more than others. Political, theological, social and other beliefs, when challenged, seem to take root in this bias for fear that if someone else’s opinion has some merit then our whole existence could be questioned.
In other words, a lot of the arguments people get into could simply find common ground if both sides admit (dare I say “confess’?) their bias. “Those liberal democrats” or, “gun-totting NRA morons” or, “anti-Bible reading Methodists” (or however you approach the “us” vs. “them” conversation) can all come to the table and say, “what do I need to learn and unlearn to move forward?”
Just some random thoughts.