Are you certain?

For the first few years of life, people learn by trial and error as they experience the world around them.

We use our five primary senses to determine what is safe, what gives comfort, what we like, what we dislike, and what we fear.

Through pattern recognition we apply this accumulated knowledge to make educated guesses to determine where other things we encounter will fit into our accumulated, but limited, individual experience.

In this way we are much like every other animal species on the planet that has the ability to retain memory.

However, once we learn to communicate with others of our species this methodology of learning is set aside by almost all of us, for almost all learning needs.

From that point on, we are social learners.

We learn from our parental role models, our siblings, our other family members, our friends (who learned the same way we did), our teachers, our entertainers, our scientists, and authors, etc…

We continue to accept knowledge — even when it is inaccurate — from those for whom we have built trust.  And, we reject knowledge — even when it is accurate — from those for whom we have not developed trust.

As a result nearly every belief you hold as an adult human; whether scientific, cultural, religious, or other; has been implanted and shaped by the learning and opinions of others.

Even when we say we are doing research on an issue, most of us are not running double blind studies to test our theories.  We are instead scouring the available research findings and opinions of others and filtering through it to find something that rings true to us based upon our previous accumulated knowledge.

The great part of this is that we are capable of learning from the experiences of others without having to have had each and every one of those experiences ourselves. 

This is how humanity has been able, and will continue, to advance.

The worst part about this is that it is how implicit bias is passed.  That along with the tendency of social learners to develop conformity bias within our families, communities and professions, also means we often filter out truth because it doesn’t fit our experience and developed biases.

Once one of our trusted social groups has collectively embraced an idea, nobody wants to be the person who raises their voice in challenge. 

This is how the pseudo-sciences that perpetuate racism and gender bias persist across generations.

This is how misinformation and disinformation of demagogues becomes embraced by masses of people.

Our collective embrace of the Internet, specifically social media, as an instantaneous global learning tool has exposed the best and the worst of our social learning habits.

Anyone attempting to change the world, or even the hearts and minds, of a few people within it, needs to understand it takes more than being right to break through the barriers of implicit and conformity biases.

The irony is that humans are uniquely capable of reason, but our ability to reason is inherently flawed due to our methodology of learning, and that methodology is the primary reason we have advanced beyond other species.

So, we are presented, here, with a new #Culturalinertia challenge.

As you engage with the modern news, which is increasingly opinion analysis of current events, rather than a strict reporting of those events, ask yourself some questions?

Do I trust this source of information?

Why or why not?

Is that trust or lack of it why I believe or disbelieve the information presented, or am I able to separate that trust issue in order to truly evaluate the information without bias?

Now, apply this same logic to how you evaluate and accept or reject the narratives of others telling us of their own personal experiences with various forms of injustice and discrimination, or mental health and addiction challenges.

Learn to recognize how your own biases interfere with your learning and developed beliefs and then you will start to be able to push through the conformity bias of the groups you engage with to make real, meaningful change.

For anyone wanting to learn more about this, I would direct you to the work of Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall and their book “The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread.”

One thought on “Are you certain?

  1. Thanks for the post and the cultural and self-awareness that you spread, Tim.

    I’d like to add the book, ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)’, by Carol Tavris, as one that’s also helpful in understanding the way cognitive biases – especially cognitive dissonance and self-justification – work.

    Like

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