Our entire perception of the world is formed in our minds. Every touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound is processed in our brains. Since the brain is what we use to interpret information about reality, it is important for us to keep in mind that our brains have flaws and often misinterpret things going on in our environment and data we use for evidence about what reality looks like. One of the most common ways the gaps in our thinking are revealed is through malfunctions called cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are common patterns in our thinking that create tendencies to misinterpret information in a (destructively) systematic way. To put it simply, cognitive biases are mistakes in our logic that frequently and similarly occur in every person’s mind. For example, one cognitive bias, called confirmation bias, is a pattern where people tend to pay more attention to evidence that supports their beliefs and pay less attention to evidence that contradicts what they believe.
Keeping in mind our journey to find what is true, I want to explain how confirmation bias can even be present in our beliefs about spirituality: if I step out the door in the morning and say, “Today, God exists”, I will then go about my day and notice all the things I see as evidence that supports my theory about the existence of God. In the same way, if I step out the door in the morning and say, “Today, God does not exist”, I will then go about my day and notice all the things I see as evidence that supports my theory that God does not exist.
Confirmation bias takes place because of a cognitive framework (process in the brain) called a schema. A schema allows us to take mental shortcuts to process a large amount of information at a fast pace. While schemas are useful in trying to make sense of the world around us, they can also deceive us because they can cause blindness towards important information that opposes the beliefs we already have. Schemas are essentially the reason that stereotypes exist.
Let’s say I believe in the stereotype “All teachers love coffee.” (I picked this one because it’s safe for me to talk about since I am a teacher ha). Subscribing to this stereotype, I will pay extra attention to the times I encounter teachers who are coffee fanatics, and write off the times I meet teachers who do not like coffee. I may even make excuses as to why the times I hear of a teacher who doesn’t like coffee “don’t count”. I may tell myself that they are not apart of the norm, that they don’t actually qualify as a teacher (sometimes we go to extreme lengths to feel comfortable in our beliefs haha), or that it’s just a fluke. In reality, it may be that only half of the teachers in the world like coffee, and half of them do not–I have no idea what the real statistics on this are–But I may go on believing that the majority of teachers love coffee, simply because I pay attention to the information can confirms the stereotype I believe in.
Beliefs are powerful. Probably more powerful than we ever realized before, because beliefs decide the course of the patterns through which we interpret reality, and therefore become our reality. That is why it is so important to base our beliefs on evidence using critical thinking. If we want to have an accurate view of what is true, we need to be mindful of our preexisting beliefs and how they were formed.
Confirmation Bias is something that happens frequently and not 100% of the time. Sometimes, when we are more honest with ourselves, we are able to see evidence that contradicts our beliefs. In later articles I will be making more distinctions about when we use reason as opposed to when we are susceptible to flawed thinking.
This is a part of a series of Keynote Articles that are revolved around ideas involving self-reflection and observation of our surroundings. These articles are a part of a project called “The Enthusiastic Agnostic”; the objective of this project is to explore important issues in spirituality and science and create awareness about them, you know, for fun. I also make Youtube videos for this project, which you can find here.