Category: cognitive biases
This article at Paleolibrarian makes the argument that religion is a classic Hobson’s Choice.
If you are unfamiliar with Hobson’s choice it is essentially the option of no options. It is the illusion of fair and free choice set within only one possible outcome. So if you’re offered just one option and you’re told you can take it or leave it, is that really a choice?
How many religions have urged that they would encourage you to engage in free thinking, as long as you come up with the right conclusions? Stir in threats of ostracizing those who come up with the wrong conclusion combined with the fear of hell, and many a believer has been convinced to draw the curve before plotting the data. All of this is compliments of the confirmation bias, the cognitive bias that causes us to seek evidence that leads us where we want to go and blinds us to conflicting evidence. Thus, many people “choose” religion after asphyxiating their own thought process. But it feels as though one is thinking freely all the way to the preordained conclusion that embracing one’s religion–usually the religion one was taught as a child–is logical.
Why would someone invent a god? There are lots of conceivable reasons. One might be lonely, scared or feeling lost, and belief in could provide comfort. Two books I’m reading have provided a different but consistent perspective on this question of why people invent gods. One of the books, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel […]
In his new book, psychologist Matthew Hutson has documented many instances in which all of us latch onto what he terms “magical thinking.” Hutson argues that this is not necessarily a bad thing–we do it to keep our sanity in this crazy dangerous world, in which our final destiny is certain death. Nor is magical thinking aways a good thing. Hutson’s book is an excellent read full of intriguing and often counter-intuitive observations, many of them based on rigorous experiments.
Hutson is also authors a blog at Psychology Today. In a recent post, he notes that even scientists are susceptible to “magical thinking,” which often takes the form of teleological thinking:
Over the years, a number of psychologists have suggested that we are promiscuously teleological. Telos is Greek for end or purpose, and teleology is the belief that an object was created or an event occurred to fulfill some purpose. You believe there’s not just a how but a why to its origin, that there’s a mind with intentions behind it. And when an event seems especially meaningful (such as a hurricane destroying your home) or an object seems especially complex (such as the human body) the prospect of a designer appears all the more likely. Some things really are designed—watches do come from watchmakers—but most of the universe isn’t.
Recently, I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, about Scientology. It’s a lucid history and examination of the movement. [More . . . ]
PLOS offers another bit of evidence that political preferences might have their genesis at low-level cognitive processes:
Liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when they think about risk, and they support recent evidence that conservatives show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.
Here are more attempts to tie political persuasion to lower level phenomena.
Go to minute 37 of this video interview of Daniel Dennett (featured on Edge.org). I found this to be an extremely well-reasoned inquiry into the systematically and intensely hypocritical web in which many doubting clergy feel trapped. Dennett suggests that the religion industry feel bound by a religious version of the Hippocratic Oath. He speaks of the felt need of preachers to weave their teachings somewhere between literalism and metaphor, never daring to land on one or the other for fear of angering huge swaths of the flock (though I do suspect that most believers are conflicted in that they themselves harbor both of these cravings).
[W]e’ve spread out and looked at a few more, and we’ve also started looking at seminary professors, the people that teach the pastors what they learn and often are instrumental in starting them down the path of this sort of systematic hypocrisy where they learn in seminary that there’s what you can talk about in the seminary, and there’s what you can say from the pulpit, and those are two different things. I think that this phenomenon of systematic hypocrisy is very serious. It is the structural problem in religion today, and churches deal with it in various ways, none of them very good.
The reason they can’t deal with them well is they have a principle, which is a little bit like the Hippocratic oath of medicine. First, do no harm. Well, they learn this, and they learn that from the pulpit the one thing they mustn’t do is shake anybody’s faith. If they’ve got a parish full of literalists, young earth ceationists, literal Bible believers who believe that all the miracles in the Bible really happened, and that the resurrection is the literal truth and all that, they must not disillusion those people. But then they also realize that a lot of other parishioners are not so sure; they think it’s all sort of metaphor. Symbolic, yes, but they don’t take it literally true.
How do they thread the needle so that they don’t offend the sophisticates in their congregation by insisting on the literal truth of the book of Genesis, let’s say, while still not scaring, betraying, pulling the rug out from under the more naïve and literal-minded of their parishioners? There’s no good solution to that problem as far as we can see, since they have this unspoken rule that they should not upset, undo, subvert the faith of anybody in the church.
This means that there’s a sort of enforced hypocrisy where the pastors speak from the pulpit quite literally, and if you weren’t listening very carefully, you’d think: oh my gosh, this person really believes all this stuff. But they’re putting in just enough hints for the sophisticates in the congregation so that the sophisticates are supposed to understand: Oh, no. This is all just symbolic. This is all just metaphorical. And that’s the way they want it, but of course, they could never admit it. You couldn’t put a little neon sign up over the pulpit that says, “Just metaphor, folks, just metaphor.” It would destroy the whole thing.
You can’t admit that it’s just metaphor even when you insist when anybody asks that it’s just metaphor, and so this professional doubletalk persists, and if you study it for a while the way Linda and I have been doing, you come to realize that’s what it is, and that means they’ve lost track of what it means to tell the truth. Oh, there are so many different kinds of truth. Here’s where postmodernism comes back to haunt us. What a pernicious bit of intellectual vandalism that movement was! It gives license to this pernicious sort of lazy relativism.
As I read the above, I think every bit as much of politics as of religion.
The article title (“The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational“) suggests that there are only one dozen cognitive biases, but there are many others. But these are 12 cognitive biases worth noting.