Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This is Your Brain on Bias

These days it seems like Trump and his supporters are living in their own alternate universe. If you've ever tried to talk to a Trump voter about politics, you know how frustrating it can be. It's like they refuse to accept basic facts about reality, even when the proof is right in front of their eyes, but they're willing to believe whatever "fake news" they read online, or whatever crazy thing Trump says, even if there's no evidence at all.

What do we do about this?

Clearly conservatives just need to stop being dumb and admit that we’re correct, right? Our views are supported by science and data; theirs are not.

But it's not that simple.

Remember This?

To me, this is obviously a white dress with gold trim. Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you're one of those people who sees it as a blue dress with black trim. While the internet was losing its collective mind arguing about this in 2015 someone found out that the dress really is blue and black. But even after learning that, I still can't help but see is as white and gold, no matter how hard I try. If you're part of team "blue and black" I probably sound crazy.

How can different people disagree so profoundly about something so simple as the color of a dress? 

"The Dress" highlights a quirk on how all of our minds work. When we perceive things in the world, like a picture of a dress, we don't just "see it," we construct it.

How Do We Actually SEE Things?

The problem is that we can’t get all the information we need to actually “see” things from our eyes alone. Our brains have to do a lot of additional work to transform the patterns of light that shine on our eyes into actual perceptions.
What are we looking at here? It's obviously a sphere covered in pointy spikes. But what your eyes "see" is just a bunch of black triangles, some with rounded bottoms. Without you ever being aware of it your brain "fills in the blanks" and makes you "see" a three dimensional spiky ball.

My brain (like yours) knows that colors look different in different kinds of light. So when I see a picture of a dress on the internet, my brain needs to decide what sort of light the dress is under, before it can "tell" me what color it actually is. But the photo of "The Dress" is ambiguous enough that different people's brains end up making different assumptions, and so we “see” the dress differently.1 My brain tells me, "sure the color of the dress looks blue, but white things look blue when they're in the shade, so what you are seeing is actually a white dress." No matter how smart we are, we can sometimes get fooled by what we see, just because of the way our brains are wired.

It's Tough Being a Brain

This sort of “construction” doesn’t just happen with visual images. When I put a piece of paper in a drawer my brain tells me that it’s still there, even though I can’t see it. When I kick a soccer ball my brain tells me that my foot caused the ball to start moving - it wasn’t just some freak coincidence that it decided to fly off right then for no reason. 2 Our brains are doing this sort of thing all the time without us ever being aware of it.

But, as “The Dress” makes clear, sometimes the "tricks" our brains use to help us live in the world end up leading us astray.

Try reading this sentence:


Notice anything odd? Read it again. Still don't see it? Try reading it aloud, one word at a time.3

When confronted with something familiar, our brain tries to make things easier for us. It says "Oh, I know this one. You don't have to bother reading every word, I've already figured out what the sentence means." But when we do that we end up missing important details. The good news is that, like in this example, sometimes our brains get things wrong in really predictable ways. We make the same sorts of mistakes over and over again. Psychologists call these mental goofs “cognitive biases.”

Cognitive Bias

We all know about bias, and we're quick to point it out when we see it. Cops are biased against Blacks. Employers are biased against women. Fox News is biased against liberals. But the things we call "bias" are really just the most obvious examples of how "cognitive biases" impact the way all of us think about politics, and everything else for that matter.

Psychologists have identified hundreds of different types of cognitive biases and studied how they lead us astray. In 2011 the psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on cognitive bias, and his collaborator Richard Thaler made a cameo in The Big Short to help Selena Gomez explain how cognitive bias led to the 2009 financial crisis.4

Because these cognitive biases come from the way the human brain processes information, none of us are immune. Declaring yourself to be "above bias" is like claiming that you are immune to cancer, or don't need to breathe - it's a biological impossibility. 

That probably won't stop you from thinking to yourself, "Not me! I'm not biased!"

Psychologists study this too. They've found that even after we learn about cognitive biases we think they don't apply to us. And then we still get fooled just as badly as before.5

Wishful Thinking

I want to focus on a kind of cognitive bias that's really important for understanding “fake news,” and politics in general:

When we want things to be true, we find it easier to believe that they are true.

Nowadays psychologists use the terms "confirmation bias," "myside bias" and "motivated reasoning" when they study this general tendency, but we’ve known that this happens for a long time. Over 2,500 years ago the Greek historian Thucydides6 observed that:

“It is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”

This is confirmation bias in a nutshell. Humans have been falling for it for thousands of years, and none of us are immune. Take this online quiz to see for yourself how powerful it can be.

Confirmation bias is why we tend to believe election polls when they tell us our candidate is winning, but think that polls are bogus when they tell us our candidate is losing.

It’s why we shout “I love science!” when we read that the headline: “recent study shows that thing you believe is probably true!” but we just sort of skip over headlines that say “recent study shows that thing you believe is probably false!” 

And it's why people believe "fake news."

Fake news and Confirmation Bias

When Trump tweets that millions of undocumented voters cost him the popular vote, or that Obama wiretapped Trump tower, his supporters believe him, even though he didn’t provide any evidence. It seems “obvious” to them that these statements are true - the same way that The Dress seems “obviously” white and gold to me.

But at the same time, many liberals are quick to believe any allegation about Trump being a puppet of the Kremlin. Even though the evidence of that right now is pretty limited, we assume that there must be a “smoking gun” somewhere, we just have to find it.

Trump may well have colluded with Putin to rig the 2016 election. Certainly there is some evidence that something shady might have been going on. But everything we know about how our brains work suggests that liberals like me are going to be biased in our evaluation of these allegations.

Let's say that one day I read that an anonymous source claims that Trump personally asked Putin to help him win the election.

The next day I read that a second anonymous source claims that the Democrats manufactured evidence to tie Trump to Russia.

Both of these stories are based on anonymous sources, with no corroboration. I don't have a good reason to believe one over the other. But because I'm a liberal I'm more likely to believe the first source than the second.

Setting a Good Example

Admitting your own biases is a great way to avoid being wrong about things and making a fool of yourself when reality comes crashing down. But it’s also essential if we want to convince people to stop believing “fake news.” Whenever liberals fall for confirmation bias, it provides ammunition to people like Trump, who can point to “liberal fake news” as a way of deflecting from their own bogus claims.

Just this year The Atlantic published a provocative piece on conservative efforts to mandate ultrasounds as part of a pro-life agenda. It was a piece of “cheering” designed to be read only by liberals, but conservatives read it too, and they picked out tons of factual errors. The Atlantic eventually issued an official correction (buried at the bottom of the article), but it’s pretty embarrassing:

“This article originally stated that there is "no heart to speak of" in a 6-week-old fetus. In fact, the heart has already begun to form by that point in a pregnancy. The article also originally stated that an expectant mother participating in a study decided to carry her pregnancy to term even after learning that the fetus was suffering from a genetic disorder, when in fact.....

[This goes on for a while. I'll just skip to the end]

...... the article originally stated that John Kasich vetoed a bill from Indiana's legislature, instead of Ohio's legislature, after which the article was incorrectly amended to state that Mike Pence had vetoed the bill. We regret the errors.”

This journalistic train wreck was seized upon by the right wing press to show that the left is guilty of “fake news” as well.

The liberal editors at The Atlantic didn’t notice all of these errors because of their natural bias towards accepting liberal conclusions. But conservatives had no trouble noticing them, because conservatives aren’t biased towards accepting liberal conclusions - they’re biased towards accepting conservative conclusions. This is important:

Conservatives are often better at spotting biased liberal reporting that liberals are, not because conservatives are less biased (they're not) but because of the way that their biases work.

What Can We Do?

Not all bias is equal. Even The Atlantic’s massive screw up was based on some evidence, and when the editors realized they were wrong they admitted it. Trump often makes claims based on no evidence whatsoever, and never even thinks about admitting he was wrong.

If we want to call him out, and have moderates and conservatives take us seriously, we have to show them that we’re better than this. In order for it to mean something when we call out bias and fake news on the right, we need to also call it out on the left.

We need to admit that our own political beliefs bias the way we process information.

My own strategy goes something like this. When I see a piece of political news that I want to be true, I force myself to stop for five seconds and at least consider the possibility that it might be false. When I see a piece of political news I don’t want to be true, I force myself to stop for five seconds and at least consider the possibility that it might be true. Even if this doesn’t cause me to change my mind, it’s a good way to keep from getting completely sucked in by my own confirmation bias.

The better we get at this, the more convincing and effective our attacks on “fake news” will be. We also won't be wrong quite so often, which would be a nice bonus.


1 Check out the 2017 paper by Witzel et al. below for the full physiological explanation of what's going on with "The Dress"

2 Even before modern psychology philosophers like Kant had already argued that our mind must construct our perceptions, by "adding on" things like causality. Nowadays philosophers tend to say that "perception is theory laden" - meaning that our perceptions of reality are never totally pure, but are always filtered through our "theories" (which could just be unconscious mental assumptions)

3 The word "The" appears twice. I borrowed this example from Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan.

4 Kahneman's excellent, and best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow is an excellent guide to the power of cognitive bias. Michael Lewis (of Money Ball and The Big Short fame) also wrote an excellent, and very readable biography of Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky called The Undoing Project which is also a great intro to their work on bias.

5 In her 2002 paper, the psychologist Emily Pronin calls this the "Bias Blind Spot." 

The Peloponnesian War, 4:108.4 (p. 266)


Kant, Immanuel (1990) Critique of Pure Reason (J. M. D. Meiklejohn, Trans.). Amherst, NY. Prometheus Books

Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York, NY. Farrar, Straus and Girox.

Lewis, Michael. (2017). The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Co.

Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(3), 369-381.

Taleb, Nassim N. (2007). The Black Swan: The impact of the highly improbable (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Random House.

Thucydides (1951) The Peloponnesian War (R. Crawley, Trans. J. Finley, Jr, , Ed.). New York, NY. Random Rouse.

Witzel, C., Racey, C., & O'Reagan, J. K. (2017). The most reasonable explanation of ‘‘the dress’’: Implicit assumptions about illumination. Journal of Vision, 17(2), 1-19. 

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