On Biases and Blind Spots

Dan Kresh |

“One of the surprising discoveries of modern psychology is how easy it is to be ignorant of your own ignorance[i].”

We are inundated with more information than we could possibly process. Our brains have developed mental short cuts that serve us well most of the time but are far from perfect. We all have blind spots, and cognitive biases, that can negatively impact our decision making without us even realizing. While you can learn about them, that doesn’t make you any less susceptible to them.

The funny thing about cognitive biases and blind spots is that they are always easier to spot in someone else than yourself. Maybe though, by turning them on their head you could use them to your advantage.

It has never been easier to find evidence to support either side of any argument. “The confirmation bias describes our underlying tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater credence to evidence that fits with our existing beliefs.”[ii] When you fall victim to confirmation bias it becomes incredibly difficult to be objective since we disproportionately notice evidence that supports our initial assumptions while ignoring disconfirming evidence. 

There’s an old saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them” and I propose doing this with confirmation bias. Here’s what I mean, Charlie Munger once said “I'm not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition. I think that I am qualified to speak only when I've reached that state.[iii]” So, what I recommend is when you have an initial assumption, you should first invert it, and look for evidence to support that your gut is wrong.

Imagine you believe the opposite and do your research from that perspective.  If you look for supporting evidence for the other side first, confirmation bias could help you build a steel man argument[iv] to counter. This is exactly what Munger was getting at in his quote. Rather than defensively waiting for an argument to counter, build the best counterargument you can then try to defend against that.

If you can prime yourself with a counter argument first, the argument you make will be stronger, and you might even convince yourself that your initial assumption was wrong. This has the potential help you realize some holes in your thinking that supporting evidence might not reveal, and if it gets you to change your mind that could be a good thing.

“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.[v]

We might not be able to turn confirmation bias off, but we can turn it around and use it to help us find weaknesses in our arguments instead of just reinforcing them.

Photo by Dan DeAlmeida on Unsplash

[ii] https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/confirmation-bias
(The Dennett quotes appearing above and below are all from goodreads.com, for the body I chose a shorter quote from Charlie Munger but I wanted to include Dennett’s thoughts on the subject below as well as an expansion of his quote on blind spots.)
“One of the surprising discoveries of modern psychology is how easy it is to be ignorant of your own ignorance. You are normally oblivious of your own blind spot, and people are typically amazed to discover that we don’t see colors in our peripheral vision. It seems as if we do, but we don’t, as you can prove to yourself by wiggling colored cards at the edge of your vision—you’ll see motion just fine but not be able to identify the color of the moving thing.”

 Daniel C. Dennett
“to compose a successful critical commentary:   1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” 2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement). 3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target. 4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”
 Daniel C. Dennett,