Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology
20 September 2011
If the Sun and Moon should doubt,
They’d immediately Go out.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
I was thinking about confirmation bias today and what a perfect topic of study this would be for evolutionary psychology. It is one thing to get at exactly what confirmation bias is, and how it functions in distorting out thinking, but it is quite another matter to get to the root of confirmation bias and understand it in an Aristotelian sense, i.e., in terms of its causes.
As soon as I started to think about confirmation bias in the context of evolutionary psychology it immediately made sense and revealed connections to other things that I’ve thought about.
What survival benefit could possibly derive from self-deception? At first thought this seems counter-intuitive. The persistence of discredited beliefs would seem to have a negative survival value. That is to say, stubbornly persisting in believing something to be true when it is not ought to land an agent in a good deal of trouble.
Coming at this from a different perspective, however, one can easily image the survival value of believing in oneself. There are many situations in which the difference between believing in oneself and not believing in oneself could mean the difference between survival and death. If this is true, then confirmation bias may lead to differential survival, and differential survival is the conditio sine qua non of differential reproduction.
In the Afterword to my Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to investigate what I called the “naturalistic basis of hope.” What does this mean? Hope has traditionally been treated as one of the three “theological virtues”: faith, hope, and charity. I wanted to investigate the phenomenon of hope from a naturalistic perspective.
I continue to believe that this is an important undertaking, but when I wrote this Afterword about the naturalistic basis of hope, I didn’t make any connection between hope and evolutionary psychology. Hope comes in many forms, and one of these forms is a hope against all rational odds that things will go well for oneself. This kind of hope is a belief in oneself that would have survival value.
This not only anthropocentric but also egocentric conception of hope has obvious limitations, but it stands in relation to other forms of hope that are less anthropocentric and less egocentric. In a more general sense than a belief in oneself that might give an advantage in survival, hope is an affirmation of one’s life not only in the present moment of struggle, but also throughout the course of one’s life — past, present, and future — and, in an even larger sense, one’s life taken on the whole must be seen in the context of one’s life in the community taken on the whole.
To live is to engage in an existential gamble. Pascal knew this, and this is why he frame his Christian (actually, Jansenist) apologetics in terms of a wager. The existential choices that we make that shape our lives (and shape the life of the community to the extent that we are able to use our lives to shape the larger world) are bets that we place, and we bet that the world is one way, and not another way.
If you place your bets unwisely, and invest your existential choices in dead ends, your life is wasted for all intents and purposes. To believe this to be the case — especially with a social species whose members need each other for cooperative survival — would be debilitating. To believe that one’s life was wasted because one believed the wrong thing would constitute a kind of spiritual suicide. I can’t imagine that many persons could keep this sense of wasted effort in mind and at the same time fully invest themselves in the business of furthering personal and communal survival.
To believe in one’s existential choices is probably a condition for optimal exertion in the struggle for life. In so far as confirmation bias makes it easier to believe in the righteousness of one’s existential choices, even in the face of conflicting evidence, it would have a substantial survival value, not only for the individual, but perhaps especially in regard to kin selection.
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