Cognitive Bias Series: Our Search for Certainty

Our Search for Certainty

by Angela Noel

February 15, 2018

A guy in a ski mask and dolphin shorts ran by me as I walked my dog through our neighborhood park. While it wasn’t strange that a man would be wearing tight nylon shorts in the early 80s, a fellow wearing a full ski mask in Southern California in springtime with his penis flopping out against his thigh definitely stood out.

I hightailed it home and told my mom what had happened right away. I don’t remember the sequence of events exactly. But I do remember my dad grabbing a stocking cap, pulling it low over his eyes and heading out to the park to see if he could find the guy.

My dad acted on the instinct to protect his little girl. But in my nine-year-old brain, seeing my dad in what looked a little like the cap (without the mask) that the penis-waving fellow had worn, confusion reigned. Could the man I saw have been my father? Also, could the fact that I saw a man’s penis in the park make me pregnant?

Both of these questions plagued me, and though embarrassed, I asked my mom for the truth. “No, honey. Your dad was right here. He’d never do that. And no, you can’t get pregnant from seeing a man’s penis.”

Phew.

April and Angela
Here’s me and our dog, April, playing in the backyard. No ski masks in sight.

Just like when my son thought I was a gun-toting criminal, my own younger-self struggled with what I had perceived versus what I believed to be true. I struggled to discern fact from all the noise.

Now, as an adult, I have more information, more concrete ideas of what is and is not true. That sounds like a good thing. But in fact it could be an even bigger problem.  Because I think I know the answer already, maybe I won’t ask those critical questions. Worse, sometimes I don’t want to know the real answer.

Those elves, our cognitive biases, are at it again.

The Deal with Uncertainty

“Your brain,” David Rock wrote in his article “A Hunger for Certainty” in Psychology Today, “doesn’t like uncertainty – it’s like a type of pain, something to be avoided. Certainty on the other hand feels rewarding, and we tend to steer toward it, even when it might be better for us to remain uncertain.”

And consider this from Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, “Conscious doubt . . . requires maintaining incompatible interpretations in mind at the same time, which demands mental effort.”

Finally, psychologist Daniel Gilbert author of Stumbling to Happiness and an essay titled “How Mental Systems Believe” theorized that understanding a statement must begin with an attempt to believe it. Once begun, it takes work to “unbelieve.”If our mental energy is diverted , it’s extremely difficult to “unbelieve” false sentences.  Kahneman writes, describing Gilbert’s work, “The moral is significant. . . when (our attention) is otherwise engaged, we will believe almost anything.”

Uh oh.

So, we don’t like uncertainty, it causes us pain. And we start with believing things because that’s how we begin the process of understanding something. But, when distracted we believe almost anything. In a world where we’re practically always distracted, what chance do we have to pursue truth in the face of such easily digested falsehoods?

Unfortunately, the prevalence of the same message turns lies (or misinformation) into “truth.” Known as the continued influence effect studies show, despite having our initial impressions debunked, we continue to believe misinformation. This effect is part of the same issue we’ve discussed in past postsconfirmation bias. Once we’ve been exposed to information, and it isn’t obviously untrue (like, the sky is made of cheese), we’re predisposed to prefer our initial perceptions and to continue to believe false information even when we’ve been told otherwise.

Cognitive Bias Series Finale
This is the last in my initial three-part series on Cognitive Bias. Love to hear your thoughts.
This is a serious issue.

Here’s an example. Recently, I attended the Testify Exhibit at the Hennepin Country Public Library. The exhibit featured art and memorabilia intended to bring context to issues of racial injustice. A picture of babies entitled “Alligator Bait” made me sick to my stomach. The fact that anyone could see a baby as bait for an alligator made my brain say, “No way. No one would do that. That can’t be real.”

But, what if it is?

I wasn’t there. And the news and history I’ve read all my life makes me want to believe this couldn’t possibly be true. Of course I know about slavery. I know the effects of systemic racism are real. But this! And yet, the  evidence from the time tells the story.

Alligator Bait Postcard
A 1914 postcard. In the lower right hand corner, you can see the horrifying caption.
The Next Chapter

Believing something I fundamentally do not want to believe requires an extraordinary amount of energy. But if not now, when? I had the ability at nine years old to question my perception. Though I didn’t want to believe either that my father was a flasher or that I could become pregnant from the sight of a random man’s penis, I still asked the question. In that case, the truth was better than the fiction. But, in the case of the terrible alligator bait story, the truth is MUCH worse. Will I have the courage and the energy to seek the truth even if it hurts?

My answer to that question is: Yes. But it’s hard. Yes. But I’m scared. Yes. But, I can’t do it alone. Yes. And it’s a human problem, not a political one.

Predisposed to seek the easy answer our brains fixate on the FIRST answer. Only by paying attention, by expending the energy, by allowing the possibility of “unbelief” can we find truth.

Let’s do it together.

For further reading, and a suggestion on a tool that may help anyone looking to curb the impact of cognitive bias in their lives, check out Dr. Allison Brown’s post on mindfulness. 

Your turn: Have you noticed yourself rejecting truth in favor of a more comfortable belief? What’s your recommendation or plan for yourself to combat it?

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

38 thoughts on “Cognitive Bias Series: Our Search for Certainty”

  1. This is a really important factor in child protection, and not something that gets enough attention. Our instant reaction on hearing/seeing/feeling something wrong is to tell ourselves we didn’t really hear it/see it/feel it. We do need to be aware of this bias.
    Also in relationships involving coercive control, it takes a long time to realise what is going on. There is lot of blocking off from our felt experience.
    A lot to think about…

    1. What an excellent point. I hadn’t thought of that scenario, but you’re absolutely right. You brought more to this post through your thoughtful comment–thank you.

  2. I’ve often discounted truth for comfort but almost always related to my own health. Once in a while business related, and very seldom, family related Eventually that stuff works itself out and whether by logic or not, a confirmation of the facts is made. But I no longer discount what I’ve heard of humanity doing as a culture because as soon as I say to myself that’s impossible, I find proof it really did happen.

    1. It’s an important thing to think about. I’m currently being far to optimistic about what I’m capable of (or what my body will endure) and I’m not sure that’s the right approach. For my own sanity or comfort, I want to believe one thing, but may need to accept another.
      In the wider world, I continue to want to believe the best in others. But in those situations where I have that same “impossible” reaction, I must pause.

      1. Many years ago I heard a speaker say never be one of those who always try harder, always give 110%. Because then when something goes wrong you have no excuse and often no further incentive. Instead “try easy.” Like 90 or 95%. Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t be overly optimistic. Optimistic yes but with enough realism to keep life interesting but still make goals attainable.

  3. I have to intentionally dig deeper when I hear something that I disagree with before reacting because more and more information online isn’t designed for truth but for clicks and reaction. Like you did with the artwork, it is essential to look for the origin of something to find out where the truth lies. It is harder and there have been a few times where I was wrong in what I had believed but I know it will help to pass on or not pass information in a more accurate way even if it goes against what I want to believe.

    1. I’m so glad you do dig deeper. It’s truly not easy to do and takes a lot of energy. I image it as similar to the energy needed to think in one language and speak in another you’ve only just begun to learn.
      I’ve been wrong too. It feels painful. I don’t like it. But, I’d rather lay the groundwork for truth than believe a comfortable lie. You’re doing a service to others by holding yourself accountable to seeking the truth before passing it on. Thank you (on behalf of us all.) And thank you for the awesome comment.

  4. And we lose that questioning, open mind that we had as children as we grow old (and somewhat jaded). It’s seemingly a fault of the maturing human being. Reading this I thought of how our need for certainty effects our opinions and how we believe our opinions identify us. We refuse to unbelieve our opinions as we perceive that this would threatened who we are as people. I truly feel that we should question our beliefs all the time & it’s such a pity that we lose that part of us that once existed as children.

    1. What a great point! I hadn’t made that connection between our identity and the opinions we wear as a result. But, you’re absolutely right. That’s another dimension making it even harder to seek truth. You articulated that perfectly.
      It’s so exhausting to question my beliefs all the time–it truly is work. It’s like a brain workout with an angry trainer. But, so important and so worthwhile. Thank you for such a valuable addition to this post.

    1. Thanks, Ana! I hope you have success re-blogging it. I’m not sure if you can re-blog self-hosted sites? Either way, I’m honored you would think of me, and glad you like the post. If you need anything from me, let me know.

  5. I am the Queen of “certainty”! I need things to be planned ahead so I know EXACTLY what is going to happen! Then, when it inevitably doesn’t go the way I expect, I end up freaking out! I say this, but I’m a bit more flexible now and able to embrace uncertainty and the unknown to a certain extent. I think there’s something scary but exciting about the unknown. What I do struggle with is the uncertainty of “not knowing” what all this (i.e. life, our existence etc) is all about. Maybe there is no one answer for that…but I find myself mulling over that A LOT and can tie myself up in knots if I’m not careful.

    1. Oh my, I know that feeling well. You pulled an important point out from this post. We really love the ability to predict the future–even the ILLUSION that we can predict the future. But, the mystics will tell us that learning to live without that need is the most present and alive we’ll ever feel. I have a lot of work to do in that area. But having awareness of it certainly helps. I also think you’re exactly right, there is something both scary and exciting about the unknown. I wish I had a hint about what this whole “life” thing was about. But as Victor Frankl wrote about in “Man’s Search for Meaning” the meaning we create is all our own. That’s a book I need to read. Thank you for adding your thought–your insight is awesome.

  6. I, like you, had an uncomfortable, and confusing encounter with a penis when I was young – maybe 12. I was on a walk with a friend of mine on a warm, summer afternoon. As we were walking, my friend noticed a man standing in a window on the second floor of his home – completely naked. She found it funny to whistle and laugh at him. I felt embarrassed and confused. I didn’t tell my parents about it for years, worrying that they would be upset by what I had seen – brain elves. But, now I wish I would have told them right away. Now, I know they would have been helpful, and possibly even done something to prevent this from happening to some other young child – after all, we knew where the guy lived. I followed certainty back then, but now I know that uncertainty was the way to go. As adults, we have the ability to choose, to make the right decision – even if it is uncomfortable or painful. Thank goodness. Wonderful write-up, Angela.

    1. Erin, thank you for sharing your experience. I agree these are really hard things to share and there’s so much going on in our brains. It’s very difficult at twelve or any other age to decide what is important to share and what to keep to ourselves. But, you’re right–when sharing will prevent harm to others, that’s a good indicator. Your friend’s reaction is interesting. A defense mechanism?
      So much for us all to keep thinking about. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Angela, this is an excellent post and it makes me wonder if that’s why so many domestic abuse victims have a hard time leaving their abuser. The uncertainty and fear they have on whether or not they can make it on their own is so much more terrifying than living with their abuser. Your post seems to suggest that, doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing this information with us. I find this topic very interesting! 🙂

    1. Yes– I think another reader said something similar on domestic abuse as a use case for how our cognitive bias can get in the way of both getting out of the situation, and finding someone to believe the story and offer support on a way forward. I think Allison Brown offers a good perspective on this too. Creating mindfulness practices to help identify when we’re falling into these biases can be a good idea.

  8. I’m going to need time to deliberate on this. I have a natural predisposition to question everything, test everything, particularly arguments; this tendency was then honed by scientific training. So it’s a well established habit now.

    The flip side is that if you always question what someone tells you, people think that you don’t believe them, when really you are just striving for better understanding.

    It’s good for some things, but I think my husband would say its kind of irritating to live with lol!

    1. I’m glad you want to deliberate on this. I want to do the same. There definitely is a balance between always questioning and never questioning. I think the key is becoming aware of when it’s safe to trust that first instinct and when it’s not. Like when my son questions whether it’s actually 2pm or 2:01pm that’s not a time for him to be wasting breath asking that question (unless he’s launching a rocket into space perhaps). It’s safe to just take for granted that its around 2pm. But, other times, like when my gut reacts to something with an immediate negative, I should question why I reacted that way.
      That’s how I’m thinking about it anyway. If you have more thoughts after your deliberation–I’d love to hear more.

  9. Oh my, here is a huge and ponderous concept. One I could ramble on about for hours as it’s right up my street. The advertising world preys on this. How you can’t live without this product or fail to have this insurance. They land you with negative outcomes and follow up with the benefits. People buy into that and end up making a purchase. Politics works the same; big up fear and then say what folk want to hear. I will avoid religion because that history is very bleak when you start digging.

    A comment above also rings true if you look at previous decades and inappropriate advances. The sheer disbelief and deliberate avoidance or some mega star turns peoples eyes of course. The truth gets buried and life rolls on pretending all’s well, except it isn’t. Same with plastics and rubbish. Ecology entered the curriculum when I was at school way back. Pollution was a topic, quickly rubbished (pun intended) and commercial overload bypassed peoples conscious while underneath the world oceans started absorbing the crap.

    It hits all aspects of life as your readers say. The domestic abuse, child protection, corporate cover ups, even charities such as Oxfam. I’m pretty sure that also hits gun laws in the US. Guns are safe its the user that compromises that. Um, right, but lets not question how many users are unfit to own one. Granted a snippet on a big argument but the concept of the hard sell and what people choose to believe is there.

    Enter fake news; the new buzz word that anyone with a few cells working clocked ages ago. Big title, big negative impact value and most folk go with the positive message it leads to. How many question the actual sourcing of that story? is it real or fabricated? 80% of dentists say this toothpaste reduces gum disease. Show me the data and proof then, refer me to the paper saying just that.

    This post flies at nearly all walks of life and is summed up by Jack Sparrow

    “Take what you can, give nothing back!”

    Really good post Angela

    1. And an excellent comment Gary. You hit on so many of the aspects of our lives where this search for certainty and the biases we’re pre-programmed with can mess with truth.
      People do exploit our short cuts. And they do it for good and bad purposes. Like it’s great that there’s “terms and conditions” and three pages of legal speak on a mortgage document, but no one reads it. How helpful is that? We can’t spend the energy to question everything, so people with their various agendas play to that laziness. And I do it too–sometimes I just want someone to trust that what I’m saying is true. This is why having trusted institutions like the media is so important. If we can’t trust that they’ve vetted the facts we have to find the sources ourselves. But who has time for that? So we accept whatever is most easily digestible.
      That’s a terrible trap.
      I really love all the points you made. I hope readers of the post will take the time to read all the comments from excellent readers like yourself who are digging into this concept in interesting ways.

  10. The thing that I find the most scary is when people hear/see new evidence against their cognitive biases but can’t believe them. I read a while ago that when people see data/evidence against what they think is true, they doubt the evidence and cling to their opinions even more strongly than before they saw the data.

    That makes it very hard for scientists to prove things with data! I guess climate change is the best example of this. It is mad that so many people refuse to even consider that humans are messing up our own planet.

    I saw it first hand during the Brexit debates in the UK. The more people were told that leaving the EU would create hardships/ruin the economy etc., the less people wanted to believe it!

    1. Oh, wow. That is a great point. And the cognitive bias information I’ve read definitely supports this too. It’s like we double-down on being wrong, a sunk cost kind of a thing. And I think we’re sometimes just plain overwhelmed with information. We can’t absorb it all, so the original certainty we had feels like a comfortable refuge. I should do more research on this one though-the contrarian effect is really interesting. Thanks, Josy, or reading and adding your insight!

        1. Wow– that is depressing, but It’s an interesting blog and podcast. Thank you for sharing. They are doing the whole cognitive bias exploration as a full time effort (or so it seems.) Awesome.

  11. Wow! I see what you mean! Our blogs this week really do complement each other. And you are right….this is a serious matter…and scary! To think that this type of cognitive issue is actually the way our brains function means that we have to WORK at overcoming it. And, humans aren’t very good at working hard for personal change (as a counselor, I understand that the clients actually have to DO something to get better, and that’s hard).

    1. Hi! You mention how difficult it is for us to make mental change happen, and of course, I agree. But it also reminds me of how I used to think going to a physical therapist would result in my body getting better just by virtue of showing up. But NOOO. I had to actually do the exercises to get better or else accept the pain. I’m sure the way we treat our bodies in this sense is a corollary to how hard it is for our brains to exert the energy to change. Thank you for reading–and adding my link your post on mindfulness! I love the synchronicity of it all.

    1. So many of them. I started this journey into cognitive bias thinking there would be a way to circumvent them. I was wrong. The more I learn about the complex machinery in our minds the more I realize trying to create a fully aware and deliberate way of being is freakin’ HARD, maybe impossible. But, I do believe, with greater awareness or mindfulness we can shield ourselves and others from the worst errors in judgment and still rub along in life quite well. Thanks for reading, Susie!

  12. Wow brilliant comments Angela as is your post…I question everything..Snopes is my best friend..lol..Seriously I hate all this fake news and people believe IT and keep posting it on FB..check it out I scream at the screen… Goverments are the worst well except for manufacturers of our food and so often as Gary pointed out most fears are pointed out years before it is proved that initial fears are true and I made that point in my Plastics post and my chocolate run post I said I believed governments and housing associations are convinced the person who is homeless is at fault so why should we help them…I do sometimes think I question too much..unless it is manufacturers, news reporters, government officials and big pharmas…My family get that look and even voice their opinions as to why I hae to question everything…Oooppps I know …

    1. I know, it is tough to know what is true and not. And because something appeals to our emotions somehow it gives credence to the argument–but that just ends up making things messier in the end. I think a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing. A scientific approach would start with curiosity and then seek evidence with an open mind, allowing the truth to emerge rather than forcing “facts” to fit what we want to believe. It’s very very hard though. For myself, not holding on too tightly to “treasured” beliefs helps. Like, even if I really dislike a certain politician, if he or she does something positive I don’t want to assume it’s bad just because I find the PERSON distasteful. I want to be open enough to believe that no matter what someone or something may appear their actions are capable of proving me wrong.

  13. Oh wow, that picture is just flooring.It’s damn frightening–not to mention sickening–how casual racism can be. For all the horror of the Holocaust, THIS attitude portrayed in the picture was seen as acceptable. This is the sort of attitude, this casual presence of I Think You Lesser, that takes us down the path from I Think You Lesser to I Know You Are Lesser to You Are Lesser and Therefore Don’t Deserve to Be.

    1. You are the first person to comment on the picture, and I’m so glad you did. I know the Nazis had similar propaganda about the Jews. And, as you point out, the horrors between what we’re willing to depict in pictures and what we’re willing to do once the idea takes hold are indescribable. I see the child in this picture and I just ache. Thank you for reading and offering your thought. Having the courage to call this what it is matters a great deal towards effecting real change.

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.