Monday, 1 July 2019

Changing minds - a brain like a meat computer running buggy software

How can we have opinions that are contrary to facts, and why is it so hard to change our minds once opinions have taken hold?

Basically, humans can’t think straight. We jump to initial conclusions based on gut instinct and incomplete information. Often we don’t really know why we hold an opinion other than it ‘feels right’.

Raw facts are meaningless to our brains. It’s just data. We give it meaning by interpreting it through a near-instantaneous filter of "Cognitive Biases” - information is distorted by personal experiences, emotions, existing opinions and prejudices, and a multitude of other subconscious factors. This speeds up our ability to interpret information but it hampers our ability to be rational. Logical consideration takes time and mental effort but we’re too busy with other stuff so we ‘go with our gut' and move on.

Then there’s “Confirmation Bias”. If a fact fits our worldview, it is readily accepted. If not, it can easily be dismissed or skewed to suit our subjective reality. Once our initial stance has been adopted we favour new information that legitimises our instincts and strengthens our existing biases. We like to be right.

Compounding these personal factors, ‘Cultural Cognition’ theory indicates that we use our opinions as a way to confirm our membership of the social groups we most strongly identify with. The desire for acceptance is often more important than the desire to independently consider the facts and potentially end up with a different conclusion from that of our peers. To challenge the accepted collective opinion can be socially risky.

This tribal mentality is programmed into us and happens at a subconscious level. Uniting behind shared ideas strengthens the unity of the group, and increases the chances of the group's dominance. And if we’re in good standing within the group, our chances of surviving and flourishing go up too. It pays to be on the winning side.

Conversely, if our group feels threatened by competing groups’ ideas or facts that don’t fit our group's collective opinion, then we close ranks and go on the defensive. There’s safety in numbers, even we’re collectively wrong.

It follows that we have many strongly held, deeply ingrained opinions that are based on shaky factual foundations and failures of logic. Evolution has provided us with a brain like a meat computer running buggy software.

Published in Shetland Life magazine in July 2019

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