Global Consequences of Cognitive Biases

My previous posts addressed several common cognitive biases while briefly touching on their subsequent consequences.  In review, the Fundamental Attribution Error leads us to make hasty and often erroneous conclusions about others’ personal attributes based on our superficial observations.  Generally such conclusions are in fact erroneous because we lack a sufficient understanding of the situational or external circumstances associated with the behavior in question. One particularly counterproductive manifestation of this tendency is the prejudice many individuals have regarding the plight of the poor. The commonly held misbelief is that the poor are so, because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise worthy of their circumstance. Further, the Self Serving Bias is manifested as an overvaluation of the degree of internal attribution the more fortunate make regarding their own personal social and economic position. The reality is that our social economic status has more to do with heritage than with personal attributes such as hard work and discipline.


Confirmation Bias, like Spinoza’s Conjecture facilitates the internalization of information that fits our beliefs and leads us to miss, ignore, or dismiss information that challenges deeply held beliefs. We are thus likely to dismiss pertinent and valid information that may move us from deeply held beliefs. And, perhaps most importantly, these tendencies disincline us from taking the additional steps necessary to critically scrutinize intuitively logical information. Thus we filter and screen information in a way that sustains our preconceptions – rarely truly opening our minds to alternative notions.


These biases are evident throughout society but are plain to see in those who hold strong attitudes about issues such as religion and politics.  The overarching implications are that we tend to cherry pick and integrate information in order to stay in our comfortable belief paradigms. For example, some Conservatives are reassured by watching Fox News because the information aired is presorted based on the core political ideology of political conservatism. Its viewers are presented with information that avoids the unpleasantness of having to legitimately deal with divergent perspectives. Similarly, creationists ignore or negate the overwhelming evidence that substantiates the theory of evolution.


It is interesting to me that the positions held by divergent individuals, liberals or conservatives and skeptics or believers are often quite emotionally based and staunchly guarded.  And rarely are “facts” universally regarded as such.  We are even more likely to cling to these attitudes and values and thus be more prone to such errors in times of distress or threat.  It takes careful rational discipline on both sides to constructively debate these issues.


The tendency to firmly hold onto one’s beliefs, be they religious, political, or intellectual, even in the face of compellingly disconfirming evidence, is referred to as “cognitive conservatism” (Herrnstein Smith, 2010).  Between groups or individuals with divergent “belief” systems, the entrenched rarely concede points and even less frequently do they change perspectives. The polar opposites jab and attack looking for the weakest point in the argument of their nemesis.  These generally fruitless exchanges include ad hominem attacks and the copious use of logical fallacies.


This is clearly evident today in debates between Republicans and Democrats as they battle over public policy. The case is the same between skeptics and believers as they pointlessly battle over the existence of God (as if existence was a provable or disprovable fact).  And it is interesting that some individuals and groups selectively employ skepticism only when it serves their particular interests. This is especially evident in those who make desperate attempts to discredit the evidence for evolution while demanding that different standards be employed with regard to the question of God’s existence.


Because it seems that we as humans are hard-wired with a default for intuitive thinking we are particularly susceptible to magical, supernatural, and superstitious thinking. Compound that default with a tendency to make the above discussed cognitive errors and it is no wonder that we have pervasive and intractable political partisanship and deadly religious conflicts. Further ramifications include the widespread use of homeopathic and “alternative” medicine, the anti-vaccine movement, racism, sexism, classism, and as mentioned previously, ideologically driven denial of both evolution and anthropogenic global climate change.


It is fascinating to me that how people think and at what level they think (intuitive versus rational) plays out in such globally destructive ways. How do you think?



  1. “Similarly, creationists ignore or negate the overwhelming evidence that substantiates the theory of evolution.”

    This is not true.

    Creationists do affirm diversions in one kind of animal. But jumping from one kind to another different kind of animal has not been observed so far — thus it is called a Scientific Theory. Even the combrian explosion opens up another theory.

    Most evolutionist hold the idea of evolution by “chance” or “natural selection”. Creationist hold the idea of evolution by “intelligent direction”. Even Dawkins believe in the possibility of an Intelligent Designer. Scientifically speaking — there have been no proof of a kind of animal jumping to totally different kind. They’ve experimented on bacterias but what they have on hand are still bacteria.

    Evolutionists are extending what have been observed to their assumptions and conjecture of the possibility that it may transform into another kind. This is unscientific attitude and a disgrace in science as measurable and observable facts.

    Moreover, if an Intelligent Designer does exists, would it not then be able to interact in the way it wants? For example, the Miracle of Fatima and the Eucharistic Miracles. The possiblity of an Intelligent Designer welcomes the reality of being able to Prove God with objective facts.

    Therefore, the article express also some preconcieved notions about religion and creationists.

  2. nbjayme,

    You solidify my point with this post. I was born and raised a Christian. I have studied the bible and early Christian history. I have studied evolution including reading Darwin and Dawkins extensively (among others). Many in my family, including my most cherished loved ones are Christians and some would consider themselves creationists. I make an effort to never preconceive or judge. My point is that we cannot discuss this because your reality and mine are not in the same realm. My facts are not your facts. But what is certain, is that you are not up to date with the facts of evolution – and Dawkins, I dare say, would shudder to hear you imply in the way that you have, that he is open to the idea of an intelligent designer. Well, that’s not completely correct, I’m guessing that his mind is open to the notion, but he could make an extensive list of examples of stunningly unintelligent designs. Have you read The Greatest Show on Earth? Clearly not. Regardless, we are all prone to cognitive errors: thus the role of science. To quote Carl Sagan: “…the reason science works so well is partly that built-in error-correcting machinery. There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. That openness to new ideas, combined with the most rigorous, skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, sifts the wheat from the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend – substantively and in depth.” Indeed! Again I must emphasize the importance of the notion that people without a fundamental agreement as to the essential necessity of falsifiability and the inherent willingness to concede one’s position based on the provision of substantive evidence cannot come to agreement. What is substantive? – Ah, therein lies the rub.

  3. Gerald

    A succinct post.

    nbjayme, your statement….:

    “Creationists do affirm diversions in one kind of animal. But jumping from one kind to another different kind of animal has not been observed so far — thus it is called a Scientific Theory.”

    …reveals the abyss between us.

    1. Which the the “one kind of animal” that has displayed “diversions”?

    2. Evolution is not about “jumping from one kind to another different kind of animal”. Kindly suggest actually reading the meaning of ‘evolve’ and then actually, sincerely study the Theory of Evolution.

    3. Further I kindly suggest that you study the difference between a scientific theory and philosophical theory. The former can be tested through experiment, the latter not necessarily.

    and finally, as Gerald stated:

    4. As God can never be proven to exist or not, why expend so much time and energy on these pages? Be kind, compassionate and accept yourself and others are they are.

  4. With regards to Evolution, there are different opinions coming from the combrian explosion. That each kind of animals can originate in its own distinct tree is highly possible. The additional possiblity of Intelligent Designer warrants the idea of a specie not brought about by evolution. It’s really a person’s cherry-picking of facts that circumvents what the real findings of science is.

  5. Good science is open to alternatives, as am I. Scientists just need evidence. I demand falsifiability and I am always willing to concede my position – based on evidence. As for the Cambrian explosion – there is ever growing data that expands the factual evidence for the theory of evolution even across the Phanerozoic eon.

    However, the focus of this post is on how we discuss these issues. We need to come to an understanding of the rules of the game, so to speak; otherwise we cannot play. What I point out is that often opposing sides apply different rules. As such, the game cannot be won or lost (a metaphor of course!).

  6. Fractelle – I appreciate your logical, rational, and evidence based approach – but I am also thankful for your acknowledgment of nbjayme’s proclivity toward kindness and compassion. I always respect decorum!

  7. Gerald

    Colour me flattered. Thank you.

    nbjayme, please note that many who disagree with you have been raised as Christians (therefore have studied theology), but do not take the bible literally.

    There is a vast universe to be discovered, please take a step towards it – you don’t have to lose your belief in a higher deity, but you will better understand the world around you.

  8. Interesting article.

    I have gone from believer in everything- to believer in nothing -to believer in what makes me most comfortable.
    The last one seems to work best but I don’t claim to have knowledge of any “truth”.

  9. Thanks Katie. Your belief path is in no way unusual – we all start out believing everything. I’m like you – I believe what I am comfortable with – and derive my comfort from science, the scientific method, or minimally solid evidence. Life sure is interesting, isn’t it? And anyhow, who really knows the truth?

  10. Pingback:What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule. · How Do You Think?

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