I have always wondered about the reasons people display a marked "confirmation bias" and the flip side, "cognitive dissonance?" Both of these tend to create much strife in people’s lives – sometimes leading to disruptions in relationships, and maybe even in a person leading a truly fulfilled life.
As with other aspects, these traits are seen very easily in others – and most not aware about their own behaviour. Like one cannot see the back of their own head in 3D, another has to give honest feedback. And after receiving feedback appropriately, one can maybe make a beginning with introspecting and reflecting on one’s own attitude, behaviour and all that lies under that.
I have been pondering a while now on the reason for confirmation biases and cognitive dissonance. I introspected upon my own behaviour. I have been reading and acquiring knowledge and information on the neurological underpinnings of human behaviour. And with what I have gathered so far, I find that there is most likely a neurological twist – that both confirmation biases and cognitive dissonance occur because the brain is most energy-hungry (and hence energy-efficient too.)
What is confirmation bias? When one would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views, beliefs and hence, biases and prejudices they would like to be true. It is almost like fitting the data and the steps in solving the equation to fit the answer that they have chosen to believe is the right answer.
What is cognitive dissonance? The introduction piece in Wikipedia sums it up thus: “In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.”
So, a confirmation bias might be the way a person handles the cognitive dissonance that they experience! And the innate “laziness” of the brain might be the reason for both!
The brain and its energy consumption
The brain consumes up to 1/3rd of the fat consumed and between 1/5th to 1/4th of the blood sugar. Yes! The human brain consumes up to 20% of the energy used by the entire human body which is more than any other single organ. The brain represents only 2% of body weight yet it receives 15% of the cardiac output and 20% of the total body oxygen consumption.
Since the brain is probably the most energy-hungry part of the body, it does ONLY as much work as is absolutely needed – yes, the brain is lazy because when it works, it works very hard! A little like the fact that a lion uses almost 18 to 20 hours of a day, sleeping – a slightly different version from what we are used to referring to as a “catnap!” And yet, the lion is amongst the strongest animals on the planet!
And let’s get some technical, neuroscience in – because neurology (ergo neuroscience) has everything to do with how a person behaves in any given circumstance. And so it becomes important to know what goes on within oneself, and also within others, in any interaction. This forms the basis of all human behavioural understanding!
Disclaimer: There is much data available on this and this article is not a treatise on neurogenesis. Far greater minds and more knowledgeable persons have done enough work in this area. And after all that work and research, they still say that this is a “nascent” field yet! There is so much more to be learnt about the “inner” universe, as there is about the external universe. And I stand on the shoulders of giants, with profound thanks to them, to even have the courage to write this article!
When does neurogenesis (creation of new neurons or brain cells) begin? It begins with the development of the embryo into a foetus and then into a child that is ready to be born. And contrary to what was earlier thought to be true, the process of creating new neurons happens right through life. The brain is found to be more malleable than previously thought – and the term now is “Neuroplasticity!”
So, consider this – a single cellular organism, a zygote, which multiplies, grows, and develops into a human being, by adulthood, a conglomeration of approximately 10 trillion cells, able to think, and behave as an individual. There are enough and more studies that show that right from the time a foetus is developing in the womb, to early childhood (roughly until the age of 7 or thereabouts,) all events and experiences shape the psychology of a person and how they respond to various stimuli later on in life. The brain forms neural connections with every single experience and event. The greatest number of neural pathways exist by age 2 (starting at 6 months of age.) And between the ages of 2 and 7, the brain pares and prunes ll neural connections that it believes unnecessary leading to the individual developing “emotional traits.” Traits can be changed – thanks to neuroplasticity - the malleability of the brain – with appropriate techniques and practices.
Thinking takes place in the brain. Thinking simply is the activation of a certain sequence of neurons. The activation comprises a biochemical and electrical process. Synapses are the ends of the neurons that communicate with other neurons. Synapses are separated by empty space called the synaptic cleft. Whenever a thought occurs, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, building a bridge over which an electric signal crosses carrying along its charge the relevant information being thought about. Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross. The brain is smart and rewires its own circuitry, physically changing itself, to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together – In essence, making it easier for the thought to trigger. And use up less energy in the process.
What does this do to a “person?” This means is that if one is consistently negative, their personality will begin to tend toward the negative. In result, a depressed or anxious individual will find themselves increasingly pessimistic. Through repetition of thought, they have brought the pair of synapses that represent their negative proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought, the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest! The predisposition leads to what can be called an “emotional trait” as explained by Dr. Richard Davidson in, “The emotional life of your brain.” The first step is to become aware, either by oneself, or by taking feedback from others on what one’s predisposition is for! And yes, neuroplasticity means that whatever one’s emotional traits are, they can be changed appropriately.
Research has shown that the brain carries all history of experiences in the form of memories. Whatever happened before, is compressed and stored. And the fact is that the memories we have are not accurate. They change every time we use them. Every time we access a memory, we change it and store the altered memory in place of the original, making this the new original. You can change your experience of things, and can actually change the past – which does happen more often than one would like to think it does! While it might not be the actual past, it definitely is each individual’s version of their past. And this, in fact, is their “reality” and perception of their past. It might be useful to remember that what one thinks to be the “truth” of their experience, is an altered version, and in fact might even border on being fiction, in many cases. And of course, the moment one reads that, the response is likely to be, “what a load of nonsense! I KNOW what I have gone through in life. How can they be altered and at a variance from the truth?” And that is precisely the reason one must sit up and take notice.
Thoughts when repeatedly thought, lead to beliefs. In many cases, this forms the beginning of a confirmation bias. Beliefs lead to a greater emotional investment in the chain of thought. The stronger one believes something, the more emotionally invested they are. And the more emotionally invested they are, the stronger their "I am right!" becomes. The more one thinks, "I am right!" the less they listen!
This is the reason for the confirmation bias and the cognitive dissonance. Once a person forms a certain opinion, they do not want to work to change it! Simply because the brain needs to do a lot of work to unlearn what it already has stored, and to learn afresh. And remember, like the lion, the brain does not want to work unless it HAS to! And so, people form confirmation biases, and handle cognitive dissonance by dismissing anything that is contrary to their existing beliefs!
A quote from Leo Tolstoy comes to mind, at this juncture:
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
And having realised that, I think it is the best use of my computing resources to question everything that I think is right, appropriate and the like. All of my beliefs need to be constantly questioned to check if there is any change that is necessitated. It is also useful to note that these beliefs are dependent on the socio-economic-cultural context in the time space continuum that they first occur in. There are innumerable examples that can be used to demonstrate this.
Back to the focus area of this article – “THE TRUTH" none might know. However, constantly checking the validity and veracity of what one believes to be the truth (which is their version of THE TRUTH) might be extremely useful. And the more one believes that "This is the way it is!" the more reason to challenge it, and to delve deeper to find out. What we think we know, oftentimes turns out to be something else.
Be aware. Be willing to have your beliefs challenged. Engage with respect with those who challenge them. Learn. Grow. And that might be the most appropriate way to handle both confirmation biases and cognitive dissonance, which are really not useful. And as with everything else, it begins with awareness!