What you think is right may actually be wrong – here's why

Jan 16, 2014 by Peter Ellerton, The Conversation
I think, but am I wrong? Credit: Flickr/seatbelt67

We like to think that we reach conclusions by reviewing facts, weighing evidence and analysing arguments. But this is not how humans usually operate, particularly when decisions are important or need to be made quickly.

What we usually do is arrive at a conclusion independently of conscious reasoning and then, and only if required, search for reasons as to why we might be right.

The first process, drawing a conclusion from evidence or facts, is called inferring; the second process, searching for reasons as to why we might believe something to be true, is called rationalising.

Rationalise vs infer

That we rationalise more than we infer seems counter-intuitive, or at least uncomfortable, to a species that prides itself on its ability to reason, but it is borne out by the work of many researchers, including the US psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (most recently in his book Thinking Fast and Slow).

We tend to prefer that fit our existing world-view, and that don't require us to change a pleasant and familiar narrative. We are also more inclined to accept these conclusions, intuitively leaping to them when they are presented, and to offer resistance to conclusions that require us to change or seriously examine existing beliefs.

There are many ways in which our brains help us to do this.

Consider global warming

Is too difficult to understand? Your brain makes a substitution for you: what do you think of environmentalists? It then transfers that (often emotional) impression, positive or negative, to the issue of global warming and presents a conclusion to you in sync with your existing views.

Your brain also helps to make sense of situations in which it has minimal data to work with by creating associations between pieces of information.

If we hear the words "refugee" and "welfare" together, we cannot help but weave a narrative that makes some sort of coherent story (what Kahneman calls associative coherence). The more we hear this, the more familiar and ingrained the narrative. Indeed, the process of creating a coherent narrative has been shown to be more convincing to people than facts, even when the facts behind the narrative are shown to be wrong (understood as the perseverance of social theories and involved in the Backfire Effect).

Now, if you are a politician or a political advisor, knowing this sort of thing can give you a powerful tool. It is far more effective to create, modify or reinforce particular narratives that fit particular world-views, and then give people reasons as to why they may be true, than it is to provide evidence and ask people to come to their own conclusions.

It is easier to help people rationalise than it is to ask them to infer. More plainly, it is easier to lay down a path for people to follow than it is to allow them to find their own. Happily for politicians, this is what our brains like doing.

How politicians frame issues

This can be done in two steps. The first is to frame an issue in a way that reinforces or modifies a particular perspective. The cognitive scientist George Lakoff highlighted the use of the phrase "tax relief" by the American political right in the 1990s.

Consider how this positions any debate around taxation levels. Rather than taxes being a "community contribution" the word "relief" suggests a burden that should be lifted, an unfair load that we carry, perhaps beyond our ability bear.

The secret, and success, of this campaign was to get both the opposing parties and the media to use this language, hence immediately biasing any discussion.

Interestingly, it was also an initiative of the American Republican party to rephrase the issue of "global warming" into one of "climate change", which seemed more benign at the time.

Immigration becomes security

In recent years we have seen immigration as an issue disappear, it is now framed almost exclusively as an issue of "". All parties and the media now talk about it in this language.

Once the issue is appropriately framed, substitution and associations can be made for us. Talk of national security allows us to talk about borders, which may be porous, or even crumbling. This evokes emotional reactions that can be suitably manipulated.

Budgets can be "in crisis" or in "emergency" conditions, suggesting the need for urgent intervention, or rescue missions. Once such positions are established, all that is needed are some reasons to believe them.

The great thing about rationalisation is that we get to select the reasons we want – that is, those that will support our existing conclusions. Our confirmation bias, a tendency to notice more easily those reasons or examples that confirm our existing ideas, selects just those reasons that suit our purpose. The job of the politician, of course, is to provide them.

Kahneman notes that the more familiar a statement or image, the more it is accepted. It is the reason that messages are repeated ad nauseam, and themes are paraphrased and recycled in every media appearance. Pretty soon, they seem like our own.

How to think differently

So what does this mean for a democracy in which citizens need to be independent thinkers and autonomous actors? Well, it shows that the onus is not just on politicians to change their behaviour (after all, one can hardly blame them for doing what works), but also on us to continually question our own positions and judgements, to test ourselves by examining our beliefs and recognising rationalisation when we engage in it.

More than this, it means public debate, through the media in particular, needs to challenge preconceptions and resist the trend to simple assertion. We are what we are, but that doesn't mean we can't work better with it.

Explore further: The pursuit of hopefulness in entertainment media

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User comments : 23

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HannesAlfven
3.5 / 5 (4) Jan 16, 2014
This might be one of the most important physorg press releases for the past year.

But, I do believe there remains some groupthink happening on the ramifications of Kahneman's model to scientific thought. For instance, notice that this particular analysis implicitly suggests that we deviate from "thinking like a scientist" in order to pander to the subconscious. Kahneman is quite clear that the subconscious is prone to numerous biases, so I would suggest that what we need to do is to create tools that expose our biases in each other, as we discuss science with one another. The point would be to convince the rational mind to spend more of its resources searching for its own subconscious biases.

That would mark a dramatic shift in how we perceive science, for it then becomes intuitive that even professional scientists are susceptible to these same biases that we face every day. In fact, for some, they are obviously MORE susceptible.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (1) Jan 16, 2014
The last two sentences of the article perhaps redeem it, on second thought ...
Serge Patlavskiy
not rated yet Jan 17, 2014
"What we usually do is arrive at a conclusion independently of conscious reasoning and then, and only if required, search for reasons as to why we might be right."

It is because there is a difference between intuitive thinking and ordinary (logical) thinking. To the point, I consider the latter just as a special case of the former. See http://generalthe...eory.pdf p.46
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 17, 2014
But did you spot the bit of false but compelling narrative in this article?
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2014
"...by examining our beliefs and recognising rationalisation when we engage in it."


The problem here is that you, by definition and by the inference of the article, are NOT going to recognize when you're rationalizing by "examining your beliefs"...you have to examine your EMOTIONS and determine where they're coming from in order too even begin to see if you're indeed making rational inferences or emotional excuses.

Instead of "why do I think the way I think", first ask "why do I feel the way I feel" and then determine "does what I feel have anything or too much to do with how I think".

VERY good article and I agree with most of if, albeit it's a bit too simplistic in the way it couches the problem but still gets the essential point across.
cantdrive85
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 17, 2014
We tend to prefer conclusions that fit our existing world-view, and that don't require us to change a pleasant and familiar narrative. We are also more inclined to accept these conclusions, intuitively leaping to them when they are presented, and to offer resistance to conclusions that require us to change or seriously examine existing beliefs.

A true scientist will not offer resistance to that which they don't understand, it just goes to show how few "real scientists" comment in these threads. The knee-jerk reaction to just about any alternative viewpoint offered by those on these threads only provide more evidence of how narrow minded most on this thread really are...
Maggnus
5 / 5 (7) Jan 17, 2014
The knee-jerk reaction to just about any alternative viewpoint offered by those on these threads only provide more evidence of how narrow minded most on this thread really are...
That's an interesting comment coming from you. You make comment on every article that even remotely mentions electrical, magnetic, plasmatic or any combination there of with an automatic "EU explains this" and then fervently argue against any person who points out that other explanations may explain it better, or alternative explanations aren't needed as our current understandings already give adequate explanations. Your dogmatic defense of your pet theory in the face of any criticism of it is the quintessential definition of narrow mindedness.
A true scientist recognizes the limits of the theory he is proposing and identifies ways to address those limitations. Your definition of a true scientist describes something else entirely.
COCO
1 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2014
for a real world and topical reference - suggest David Ray Griffin's "Cognitive Infiltration" - but I suspect the elephant in the room - MSM would squash the daylites out of any free thought on 911
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (5) Jan 17, 2014
A true scientist will not offer resistance to that which they don't understand, it just goes to show how few "real scientists" comment in these threads. The knee-jerk reaction to just about any alternative viewpoint offered by those on these threads only provide more evidence of how narrow minded most on this thread really are...

@Cantdrive
if that aint the pot calling the kettle black!
like Maggnus says above, you comment on EVERYTHING using your precious EU garbage...
i actually gave even YOU the benefit of the doubt... until i did my homework and found out that you are just preaching a religion.
Maggnus nails it on the head here with
Your dogmatic defense of your pet theory in the face of any criticism of it is the quintessential definition of narrow mindedness


Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (4) Jan 17, 2014
It's kinda funny, but ... HOW people say something rather than WHAT they say, along with the followup interactive dynamic, is often more interesting than the actual article topic...
ubavontuba
1 / 5 (6) Jan 18, 2014
Consider global warming
Is global warming too difficult to understand? Your brain makes a substitution for you: what do you think of environmentalists? It then transfers that (often emotional) impression, positive or negative, to the issue of global warming and presents a conclusion to you in sync with your existing views.
I see this all the time. The warmists insist the globe continues to warm "at an accelerating pace," in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, it was also an initiative of the American Republican party to rephrase the issue of "global warming" into one of "climate change", which seemed more benign at the time.
I'm going to call this for the blatant lie it is.

"Its first use was in a 1975 Science article by geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory: "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?'"

http://www.nasa.g...ame.html
Maggnus
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 18, 2014
blah blah in spite of all evidence to the contrary.


Evidence to the contrary? Every study done by every discipline, from atmospheric studies to zoology, has found and reported evidence of global warming. No less than 20 articles on this site alone, report on evidence of global warming or it's objective, empirical effects. That you are too moronic to see that speaks loudly of your bias.

As to your 2nd comment: first of all, the term "climate change" has been used in various scientific studies for decades. It is similar to, but distinct from, global warming, another term that has been used in the scientific literature for decades. That you can link to some study that only goes back to 1975 says much about your lack of scientific acumen. Gilbert Plass' seminal climate work of 1956 is called "The Carbon Dioxide theory of Climate Change".

Secondly, the term was bastardized by the US conservative movement, who felt that too much weight was being given to the term..cont.
Maggnus
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 18, 2014
..cont.. felt that too much weight was being given to the term "global warming" by the media. Frank Lutz, a Republican strategist, noted in a memo to the conservative party that the environment is the single biggest vulnerability of the republican party and GW Bush in particular. He went on to say that Americans will accept a compelling story, even if it is factually inaccurate, as long as the story evokes a strong emotional response. As such, he "suggested" that the term "global warming" be dropped in any Republican responses to the science in favour of the less emotionally loaded term "climate change".

And that, Ubamoron. is what the author of this article is talking about.

Please, do keep posting though, you do more to harm your cause every time you open your moronic mouth than any particular scientific article can do.
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 18, 2014
Ubavontuba hits a sour note with
I see this all the time. The warmists insist the globe continues to warm "at an accelerating pace," in spite of all evidence to the contrary

not all of them.
The argument between you and I was that I believed there WAS global warming, you said there wasnt (or rather, that it had stopped).You used data that was cherry picked, I used data that wasnt.
By all means, though, keep posting, as you are only supporting the arguments of the article.
3432682
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 18, 2014
Most people have lots of beliefs about nature but little scientific knowledge. Global warming, which has not increased for 16 years, is a prime example. Repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it. It is a belief, not knowledge, for most people.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2014
Interestingly enough, the purpose of this article is to accomplish exactly what it describes...
Maggnus
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 18, 2014
Most people have lots of beliefs about nature but little scientific knowledge. Global warming, which has not increased for 16 years, is a prime example. Repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it. It is a belief, not knowledge, for most people.


Reflection, meet mirror!
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2014
A case in point for the lies in "science".
Only about two weeks from Punxsutawney Phil will make a prediction for more wintry weather or an early thaw. "scientists", lusting after making the public depend on what they say and not trust themselves, insist the groundhog can't be trusted because "he's only right 39% of the time". But that's the "interpretation" applied to his actions, seeing his shadow or not, not Punxsutawnwy Phil himself! If you reverse the "interpretation", saying if he sees his shadow it will be an early spring, and, if not, it'll be six more weeks of cold weather, then he will have been right 61% of the time! But "scientists" in their cravenness won't admit this, because they want people to depend on them alone.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2014
Only about two weeks from Punxsutawney Phil will make a prediction for more wintry weather or an early thaw...But "scientists" in their cravenness won't admit this, because they want people to depend on them alone

@julianpenrod
ok what in the world does a rodent of the family Sciuridae climbing in and out of its hole have to do with lies in science?
Your entire paragraph makes very little sense, and I dont see how it supports your claim about
A case in point for the lies in "science"

I could use your same paragraph above, reverse the numbers like you said, and make a claim that Santa is really the love child of Einstein and the Tooth Fairy and it would be just as valid as the claims you made about your "case in point" showing the "lies in science"

is this just a language barrier thing?
what?

Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Jan 19, 2014
Most people have lots of beliefs about nature but little scientific knowledge. Global warming, which has not increased for 16 years, is a prime example. Repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it. It is a belief, not knowledge, for most people.

@3432682
why cull the data?
taking your logic:
then during the 1940-1950's-global warming stopped/dropped
and during '60-'68 it dropped
and '70-'76 it dropped
and in around '82... well, you get the point

so... why aren't temps back to pre-industrial or even pre-1950 temps?
Maybe because there has been a continual upward trend over the long term that shows, even in times of perceived stopping/dropping, there was still an overall rise?

http://www.woodfo...60/trend

you concentrate on a little pic, not the big pic
wearing blinders and culling data is not science
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (4) Jan 19, 2014
A case in point for the lies in "science".
Only about two weeks from Punxsutawney Phil will make a prediction for more wintry weather or an early thaw. "scientists", lusting after making the public depend on what they say and not trust themselves, insist the groundhog can't be trusted because "he's only right 39% of the time". But that's the "interpretation" applied to his actions, seeing his shadow or not, not Punxsutawnwy Phil himself! If you reverse the "interpretation", saying if he sees his shadow it will be an early spring, and, if not, it'll be six more weeks of cold weather, then he will have been right 61% of the time! But "scientists" in their cravenness won't admit this, because they want people to depend on them alone.

You actually think regular people believe Phil's prognostications? It's a story, man. It's entertaining diversion, NOT science. I've never even heard of a scientist actually taking the time to disclaim his seasonal predictions.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2014
This might be an interesting read for some of you -
http://www.physic.../7x.html
AeroSR71
5 / 5 (3) Jan 19, 2014
I'd like to thank all of the intelligent posters who examine the evidence and draw conclusions based on facts, without getting emotionally involved. It gets really tiresome to read comments from posters who clearly do not know what they are talking about. Not only on PhysOrg, but all over the web. Unfortunately, a majority of people on this planet are vastly ignorant about many world issues, yet they feel the need to express themselves. If it wasn't for some of the more intelligent posters here, I would have given up on humanity a long time ago. It's odd that ignorance is so prevalent at a time when information is so readily available. It's scary to think that our social and economical policies (especially concerning climate change) are being written by these same uninformed individuals.