You folks in the comments should stop arguing for a minute and check this out. Jonah Lehrer’s latest Wired Science column has more reaction to that very cool recent study by Mercier and Sperber on how confirmation bias can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation to the particular needs of reaching good decisions in a group context: The reason we reason. (With professional basketball content, too!)
It includes a link to an even cooler interview with Hugo Mercier from Edge.org: The argumentative theory: A conversation with Hugo Mercier.
Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves.
And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. And it’s weird, when you think of it, that humans should be endowed with a confirmation bias. If the goal of reasoning were to help us arrive at better beliefs and make better decisions, then there should be no bias. The confirmation bias should really not exist at all. We have a very strong conflict here between the observations of empirical psychologists on the one hand and our assumption about reasoning on the other.
But if you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you’re trying to convince someone, you don’t want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that’s what the confirmation bias helps you do.
The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it’s actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning — but they’re very good at reasoning for arguing. Not only does the argumentative theory explain the bias, it can also give us ideas about how to escape the bad consequences of the confirmation bias.
People mostly have a problem with the confirmation bias when they reason on their own, when no one is there to argue against their point of view. What has been observed is that often times, when people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.
On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution.
See? I knew there was a reason for continuing to engage with shcb.
Lies.com: Fulfilling the evolutionary imperative for argumentation since 1996.