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Reflections on the Confirmation Bias

Published on July 2, 2015, by in Uncategorized.

Despite being a man of many words (poet, songwriter, academic), I sometimes feel as if I’m fumbling around, trying to find the clearest way to convey in language, my experience of and perspective on life. However, what’s ironic is that if I were to try to boil it down, I would simply say that reality cannot, in the final analysis, ever be adequately modeled, captured or contained by any of our conceptual or linguistic frameworks, no matter how profound, poetic, or scientifically rigorous they may be. Funny enough, it is this “beyond being able to be captured by words” that best captures, in words, the way I increasingly find myself feeling and experiencing life!

The confirmation bias is, I believe, one of the most important discoveries made in the field of psychology over the past few decades. This perceptual phenomenon refers to our tendency to search out information that confirms our preconceived notions about the world and ignore or overlook those bits of data that don’t fit our prior assumptions. The confirmation bias reflects our deep-seated habit and inclination to defend and protect whatever we believe to be true (whether about our selves or life) regardless of any disconfirming evidence we might be presented with. I think a strong case can be made that freeing ourselves from the pervasive influence of this perceptual bias will go a long way toward liberating ourselves from much of the craziness, suffering and lack of well-being that continues to pervade so much of our individual and collective human experience despite the myriad strategies—psychological, spiritual, political, medical—we’ve developed over the past several thousand years to try and heal what ails us. Let me try to explain…

The reality is that in any given moment, we don’t really experience life as it is; we experience our beliefs, interpretations and descriptions about life. We are, in a very real sense hypnotized by our beliefs and ideologies about everything, caught up in the web of our own descriptive frameworks, living as it were inside a virtual world made of concepts, not reality. We believe our descriptive frameworks, imagining that they represent reality when, in fact, they are necessarily crude approximations of the rich, multidimensional complexity that is our moment-to-moment experience.

It’s all very innocent and natural, this impulse to create explanatory frameworks and develop various models of reality. It’s understandable that we humans would desire to create some sense of order, certainty and predictability in the face of the vast sea of uncertainty, uncontrollability and unpredictability we find ourselves swimming in. The problem, however (and human history illustrates this quite clearly and painfully) is that we all too often become personally and emotionally invested in these descriptive frameworks, imagining our conceptual maps and interpretive renderings to be true or actual representations of reality. And it is right there where we can see the power of the confirmation bias at work, making it that much harder for us to see beyond our cherished notions, frameworks and explanatory models, hesitant to truly open ourselves up and consider the possibility that things may be far more nuanced and multi-dimensional than we’ve imagined them to be…

It’s fairly easy to see the ways in which the confirmation bias has served to perpetuate such things as racial and gender stereotyping and prejudice. Its powerful role in human conflict is also quite clear. Whether religious, political or ideological in nature, our resistance to having our points of view about things challenged seems to know no bounds. But not only do we cling to and defend our viewpoints regarding the world, politics, religion and so forth. We also subscribe to all manner of beliefs and ideas about our own subjective experience, taking for granted that the words we use to describe what appears are somehow “true” characterizations of whatever may be arising experientially. What do I mean by this?

Let’s take the term, “tired.” Tired is really an abstraction, a conceptual rendering of what is essentially a momentary, fleeting set of perceptions and sensations. The use of any word including “tired” represents an understandable yet ultimately futile attempt to capture in language, the myriad textures, patterns and flavors that constitute human experience. To be sure, the use of language can function at one level to help distinguish one type of patterning of life energy (“tired”) from another (e.g., “exhilarated”). But if we inquire experientially into any phenomena, in this example, feeling tired, we’ll find that “tired” isn’t exactly what we imagine it to be. Beyond the conceptual label we give it, beyond the verbal descriptor, what exactly is this flow of experiencing we label as, “tired”? Can we really say? Or when we inquire into it experientially, when we dive directly into the raw energy of this thing called “being tired” rather than reflexively referring to the conceptual label to tell us what the experience is, we are left with something far less definite, something in fact quite elusive, a phenomenon (or set of phenomena) that while totally present and undeniable, is at the same time, impossible to grasp hold of or pin down definitively. To be sure, things appear, and we have descriptive labels that we use to refer to them. But the reality is that each momentary perception utterly transcends any effort to define or characterize it.

Another way to understand what’s being pointed to here is that every phenomenal state is both conceptual and non-conceptual in nature. Everything that is experienced has its descriptive label (e.g., tired, fearful, happy, anxious) on the one hand and yet at the same time, each of these phenomena are in fact, utterly beyond our capacity to describe them, fully.  Put another way, we could say that every phenomena has two aspects—its sheer existence (i.e., presence) and its description (i.e., conceptual label).  At a descriptive level, such things as fear, tiredness, and joy certainly exist. However, these things are, at the same time, unknowable, beyond any possibility of being fully captured descriptively. In other words, we can never quite get to the bottom line of what things actually are.

Now this may all sound terribly abstract and lacking in any sort of practical relevance to our lives. But consider this—the very states (e.g., fear, sorrow, insecurity, anxiety, discomfort, uncertainty) that have plagued and tormented human beings for millennia are not, in fact, merely what they appear to be.  We’ve imagined that these momentary flashes of experiencing labeled as fear or anxiety actually require some remedy, fix or cure. But what fuels this persistent view is our belief in the substantive nature of such states (the idea that they are actually “things” that can harm us). And this belief is a direct product of the ways in which such patterns of life energy are characterized, conceptually and linguistically including the myriad stories we layer on top of such phenomena, most notably the idea that such states are problematic in the first place!

We could call this, the mother of all cognitive biases, this idea that because we have words and definitions for things and experiences, we actually know definitively what these things or experiences actually are:

“Oh yes, I know what tired is. It’s, well a feeling.”

“Okay, but what is a feeling?”

“Well, it’s a set of distinct sensations in the body.”

“Alright then, but what is a sensation?”

“Well… hmmm… I’m not exactly sure. It’s kind of hard to define or describe actually…”

“Exactly!”

At a certain point, we simply run out of ways to characterize what is arising experientially. We come to find that we can’t actually definitively characterize our experience. It’s too wild, too dynamic, too boundless, too multidimensional and too open-ended to ever pin down or define. Yes, at one level, reality is precisely what we say it is. Tired is tired. Fear is fear. Happiness is happiness, and so on. At the same time, our experiences are forever transcending any effort we might make to explain, define, or otherwise characterize them. And so we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of this beautiful, awe-inspiring paradox—we know what things are on the one hand (their descriptive labels), and yet we also don’t know what they are for everything is inherently uncertain and indeterminate. All there is is pure, wide-open, ungraspable mystery, through and through.

Undoubtedly, we cling to our descriptive, explanatory models and frameworks (i.e., the confirmation bias) because they give us some sense of safety, security and certainty. And so to allow all those frameworks to be held lightly (as provisional frames of reference rather than absolute truths) can be a pretty scary, even terrifying proposition to consider, a place that feels like no place at all for quite literally, the seemingly firm, predictable ground of all our knowledge and definitions, the very ground that we once imagined could be counted on has given way and we now find ourselves in a free fall of indeterminacy and multidimensionality, never quite landing anywhere firm. But right there is our greatest liberation, the freedom from any and all fixed frameworks. No longer the false or imagined security that all our labels, definitions and conceptualizations seemed to bring us but the true security, the true ground, which is really no ground at all, a kind of groundless ground we could say, this exhilarating free fall into reality, every miraculous instant known yet unfathomable, experienced yet ungraspable.

 

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