Can Education Teach People to See Their Own Biases?

By Chris Mooney | June 17, 2011 11:26 am

Whenever I speak, write, or blog (especially blog) about reasoning biases, there’s a common rejoinder. Can’t we use better education to teach people to see past their own blinders?

While I think some kinds of advanced training are indeed about bias control–good journalism, science–in general I’m skeptical that one can make much headway at this in the basic educational system. The reason is that the biases are activated automatically, pre-conscious thought. Indeed, there is published research showing that getting older and more educated doesn’t curtail reasoning biases, and also that we see contradictions and hypocrisy in those we disagree with, not those we agree with.

Yet the plea for better education still persists. Frankly, I chalk the resistance up to that old “Enlightenment ethic” (if only we could make people better educated and get them better information) that is very very hard to dislodge, even when one is citing science to dislodge it.

Now, I don’t know for sure that there is no way to educate away our biases. I’m simply skeptical of it. And I’m not the only one. Let me commit a logical fallacy of my own, the argument from authority. Here’s the University of Virginia’s Jonathan Haidt, who some think is pretty important on these matters, discussing the very point:

Why is the confirmation bias, in particular— this is the most damaging one of all—why is the confirmation bias so ineradicable?  That is, why do people automatically search for evidence to support whatever they start off believing, and why is it impossible to train them to undo that?  It’s almost impossible. Nobody’s found a way to teach critical thinking that gets people to automatically reflect on, well, what’s wrong with my position?

Could there be a way? Maybe. I imagine it would less involve teaching people about various logical fallacies and more involve teaching people to be cool and zen and not respond emotionally. I’m thinking more Jedi training than Bertrand Russell training. What do you think?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Motivated Reasoning

Comments (26)

  1. We become attached to our beliefs and often identify with them. An attack on our beliefs often feels like a personal assault us. Buddism holds that our attachment to belief is a primary source of our suffering. So I’d agree with the Zen/Jedi approach.

    I wonder if our tenacious approach to belief hasn’t been beneficial in the big picture. In a study of learning between young humans and apes, the humans tend to rigidly follow what they’ve learned more than apes, who will take a shortcut. This tenacity of belief may be key to our ability to learn language.

    And yes, I’m attached to the belief that attachment to belief is suffering. The only route out is futilitarianism.

  2. I would say the importance of the adversarial and the dialectical principle, the importance of a good argument. You come to an argument not hoping to convince all the other parties, understanding that that is unlikely, but in the hope that you will learn and sharpen your own case and position. A good argument is one where both parties have invested a good amount of thought and research into their positions, and argue as though they are dealing with honest and rational human beings. A good argument is not, contra to what certain hysterics both on this board and elsewhere on the internet, and on the news channels and so on, believe, a vituperative repetition of talking points.

    A way to teach this would be – this is an adaptation and expansion of Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Teach the Argument’ line – not just to teach the argument about Evolution and Climate change, but also the Atomic Theory, Newton’s laws of motion and so on. That is, one should teach them by a good summary of the observed phenomena, the various models put forward to explain them (e.g. in addition to creationism, one should also discuss Aristotle’s eternism), their strengths and weaknesses, and show how their strengths were assimilated by the correct answer. That is, it is wrong to say that Newton was overthrown by Einstein; most of the Universe runs exactly as Newton said, but Newton fits into Einstein’s broader spectrum. Similarly, the great classifications and collections of the old creationists, such as Paley, were completely assimilated into Darwinian evolution.

    For what one can do on one’s own, I would say this: always seek out the best arguments made by your opposing faction and engage with them. If you’re a liberal, deal with the best arguments that the conservatives have and vice versa. There’s no better way to up your game and understanding.

  3. Teach children, and people in general, about these biases themselves. I can only speak from my own experience, but learning a bit about how the brain works and how easy it is to fall into such patterns has helped me view my own opinions, beliefs, and reactions in a whole new way.

  4. kirk

    One semester of Probability and Statistics would help more than reading this blog entry 17 times. Not that there is anything wrong with this blog entry or course. This leads to the Mention/Use distinction.

    My knowing statistical methods and USING them v. knowing ABOUT a method that kinda sorta confuses me but in priciple provides grist for the CB mill.

    I can challenge my CB or motivated reasoning with USE. Otherwise that I can throw down a MENTION in a specious argument from authority (“Scrimshaw, the brilliant Nobel Laurete, has proven you wrong…”)

    This might save us.

  5. William Furr

    Folks have worked on this very same problem for quite some time. There’s a whole community of “rationalists” out there who are on top of this research and have spent an enormous amount of time working out how to get around it. They might be a good place to start: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/How_To_Actually_Change_Your_Mind

  6. GregM

    I think resisting confirmation bias is an attitude that needs to be continually cultivated, and can be taught and encouraged by the methods mentioned by the other commentators. I’ve set up classroom debates in which some students inevitably have to argue for a position that they personally disagree with. Afterwords, many of these students expressed surprise at learning the substantial reasons supporting the position that they disagreed with, and even more surprise at how they got emotionally invested in arguing for it.

    I don’t recall doing any debating as a student, but when I was doing course assignments, I would try to imagine how my profs would respond to what I was writing, and that may have helped cultivate an attitude of looking at my work from the perspective of another, more critical person.

    An educational experience that surprised me in this regard was an acting course. In representing a character who was not me, I had to try to adopt the worldview of the character. It was another way in which I was encouraged to try to see the world through the eyes of another person, a skill that I could bring to bear, although imperfectly, when evaluating my own work and ideas.

  7. 1985

    I don’t see the logic here at all.

    It is a fact that there are people who are much better than the rest of the population in controlling their biases although nobody is perfect and achieving that perfection is indeed most likely to turn out impossible.

    What made those people better at it than the rest other than education that involved pointing out the biases, making them aware of them training them to be careful with their reasoning, etc.? Before you tell me that a lot of them are actually self-taught because our educational system doesn’t really do the aforementioned things, I will agree this is the case, but this is still education and the product of many people figuring out what the cognitive biases are and then other people understanding them. Yes, you can’t achieve perfection, but you can definitely do much much better than doing nothing.

    The problem with the “more education does not lead to better reasoning abilities” line that you have been promoting for a while is that you are assuming that all education is the same when it absolutely isn’t. The vast majority of education these days is of extremely poor quality and does absolutely nothing to address the issues with scientific literacy (both when it comes to knowing the facts but more importantly, when it comes to scientific reasoning) and cognitive biases. It is a few scattered pockets here and there that exist mostly due to the efforts of certain individuals who take their teaching mission seriously and are aware of the importance of these matters, but those are rare.

  8. Al Cibiades

    Ahhh! Logic that disproves logic…akin to the popularization of Heisenberg, but more appropriately Godel’s Incompletelness Theorem.

    Ibogaine.

  9. Vanessa

    I think it would help to get rid of debate-style discussions in classrooms, where the students are randomly assigned to argue one side or the other, and the emphasis is on arguing and convincing rather than working together to figure out a reasonable conclusion. And what Nicole said – encouraging students to think about and maybe write about/discuss their own biases from an early age might help them become more aware of it as they get older.

  10. Incredulous

    #7 1985 -

    What basis are you using to find those “scattered pockets” good education? How many educational institutions have you actually gone into and evaluated? How many curricula have you investigated? How many have you followed into the classroom to find out that they “take their teaching mission seriously and are aware of the importance of these matters”?

    All I hear from your comment is “My education was better than everyone else’s and I am probably the last person to get a good education.” and “nobody can control their biases .. except me of course”

    Not a personal attack, just pointing out your own biases showing through. We all have those feelings and it is hard to get around them when we deal with the non-thinking nature of the general population that doesn’t think about anything other than sports, the latest celebrity, and reality television. It would be much easier if we could see inside people’s heads and gauge mental activity. It is scary to think about some of them having the ability to vote on important matters.

  11. 1985

    9. Incredulous Says:
    June 17th, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    All I hear from your comment is “My education was better than everyone else’s and I am probably the last person to get a good education.” and “nobody can control their biases .. except me of course”

    Where have I said that????

    You are totally misrepresenting what I wrote.

    Yes, I think that as an undergraduate I have gone through a program that places more emphasis on these things than most other programs do. But there was still quite a lot of variability from class to class within that program. What is certain is that I have seen much less of it in the programs I have been part of after that or the ones I am familiar with from other sources even though they’re equally prestigious. And I most definitely don’t see that kind of training in the people who I have worked with and who are graduates of most other programs I am not familiar with in detail

    So it is a perfectly reasonable conclusion.

    But I never said anything of that sort and I clearly said that perfection is most likely impossible to achieve in that area so how you decided that I meant “nobody can control their biases .. except me of course” is beyond me.

  12. Application of the scientific method, critical thinking, or skepticism are unnatural acts. Despite our best efforts not to succumb to the same cognitive biases as everyone else the discipline is best applied by others. Critical peer review does this. Books and articles written for popular consumption, and blogs, let alone talk radio, not so much. I KNOW I have perceptual and cognitive lenses, filters, blinders, and biases, but I don’t FEEL like I do.

  13. Incredulous

    You look at a fresh graduate and you have education without experience. The more time that passes since you were that age, the younger and dumber they appear. It is you changing and not them.

    There are good students and poor students regardless of the prestige of the university. The thing to keep in mind is that post-secondary education is not and has never meant to be the whole of someone’s education. It is meant to teach people how to learn independently. Their formal education is the beginning, not the goal.

  14. MartyM

    I don’t see how education is not the answer. One can argue what constitutes “good” education, but nonetheless, if the general populous doesn’t know how the mind works, how can they make decisions on that they believe or how they act/consume and so on. They just believe because “that’s how they were raised” etc. As the neuroscience increases the wealth of information about how the mind works it has to get out to the general public in some method(s). Of course we know that the act of learning itself changes how the mind works. Unconscious biases can’t be changed over night, but they can be changed (not eliminated), but I don’t see the goal necessarily as changing our biases, but more of just being aware of them. The change becomes secondary and in some cases automatic.

  15. Paul S

    I don’t think education in general can do it. Just because someone is educated does not mean that they will know the pitfalls and bias in themselves. It has to be specific to teaching about how you think, so you can see your own bias. Then prevent yourself from falling for information that you might agree with but isn’t based in reality.

  16. bad Jim

    Richard Feynman has a famous discussion of this sort of problem in “Cargo Cult Science”:

    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are
    the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about
    that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other
    scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after
    that.

  17. Does confirmation bias exist to the same extent in other cultures? Is it a unique product of our own Judeo-Christian insistence that all problems have at most one solution?

    It would be interesting to see if a scholar who grew up as a Buddhist (for example) exhibited the same blindness to their own fallibility.

  18. GregM

    @9 Vanessa: I would agree that debate should not be the only method used in a course, but in my experience one or two debates per semester has helped students experience a broader range of perspectives than than without debates. In the courses I’ve taught, the students’ backgrounds and experience were rather homogenous and narrow, so working collaboratively to come up with a common solution typically considered only the narrow range of their limited experiences. But when given time to research the perspectives they are assigned to represent, they can expand the range of perspectives that they bring to class and learn something about their own limitations and biases in the process. It is critical that the student take their assigned perspective seriously and do the research on it. Debates without adequate preparation of the debaters are a waste of time.

  19. Nullius in Verba

    You can teach somebody about confirmation bias, that they are subject to it too, and to want to do something to fix it. You can’t teach anyone to actually fix it by themselves purely through education.

    You can teach methods that make biased reasoning harder to do. All the formalities of science – systematically listing alternatives, taking copious notes during experiments, never ignoring, deleting, or “cleaning up” raw data, listing assumptions and explicitly and formally deriving the results from them, controls, double-blind experiments, randomised experiments, and holding firmly to methodological scepticism – the principle that everything is open to question, no matter how well-accepted, and that plausible problems and questions should be chased down out of principle. How do we know? In what ways could it conceivably be wrong?

    But the best method against confirmation bias is to find people with different biases because of their different prior beliefs and test your ideas against them. It can result in noisy and emotional arguments. But if it has never been tested thoroughly, how can you know? We all have our biases; if we want to clear out our own errors (and it is a significant admission to claim that we don’t) we have to test our own beliefs. That requires listening to the best available arguments against them.

    “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”
    Milton, Areopagitica.

    Milton’s essay is a good one for this debate, discussing many of the issues being raised now. Objections are raised – it results in the spread of bad ideas, it wastes time that could be better used, uneducated people cannot be trusted to distinguish the good from the bad.

    Milton replies to the first that their spread cannot be prevented, (“And he who were pleasantly disposed could not well avoid to liken it to the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate.”) and error is needed to teach virtue (“Seeing, therefore, that those books, and those in great abundance, which are likeliest to taint both life and doctrine, cannot be suppressed without the fall of learning and of all ability in disputation”). Worse, not only doesn’t it work – trying to ban it only encourages its spread. (“Although their own late arguments and defences against the prelates might remember them, that this obstructing violence meets for the most part with an event utterly opposite to the end which it drives at: instead of suppressing sects and schisms, it raises them and invests them with a reputation. The punishing of wits enhances their authority, saith the Viscount St. Albans; and a forbidden writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seek to tread it out.”). To the second he replies with all the many other pastimes people waste time on, and says it is not a waste when the best arguments for the truth are constructed from the false ones. To the third, he says first that it is insulting and unjust, especially to those uneducated but enquiring spirits who love learning, and then that it makes no sense to assume the common people can be led astray by a single pamplet, and yet, without discernment, to be less influenced by the far more copious works of the consensus. (“This may have much reason to discourage the ministers when such a low conceit is had of all their exhortations, and the benefiting of their hearers, as that they are not thought fit to be turned loose to three sheets of paper without a licenser; that all the sermons, all the lectures preached, printed, vented in such numbers, and such volumes, as have now well nigh made all other books unsaleable, should not be armour enough against one single Enchiridion, without the castle of St. Angelo of an Imprimatur.”) To this last it may be objected that a pamplet could be more influential if it was such that people preferred to believe it – but his point is that it is a poor argument from poor teachers if it cannot defeat an opponent with the authority and resources available to the consensus.

    It should be clear that Enlightenment thinkers understood that people were biased and irrational, had considered the problem, and had no illusions that open debate would end dispute and error. (Although one could aspire to it.) They didn’t think it a problem, though, they thought of it as a strength.

    “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again.”
    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/608/608-h/608-h.htm

  20. Wow…first, Nullius, A+, head of the class, and way over my head…impressive and very well done (…how long did that take you?)

    Now back to my comfort zone…Michael Brady, I think you are on to something here…

    “Application of the scientific method, critical thinking, or skepticism are unnatural acts. Despite our best efforts not to succumb to the same cognitive biases as everyone else the discipline is best applied by others. Critical peer review does this. Books and articles written for popular consumption, and blogs, let alone talk radio, not so much. I KNOW I have perceptual and cognitive lenses, filters, blinders, and biases, but I don’t FEEL like I do.”

    Very well put, as it draws the key distinction at work, that of the emotional versus rational root of our beliefs

    I’ve been thinking about this whole question for some time…. of whether through the illumination/explanation/demonstration of the activity of motivated reasoning we might in some way “educate” folks on how they come to their beliefs, and therefore possibly give them the opportunity to both examine their own and others in a new light. I’m thinking about this question in the context of my role as the Director of a Science Center, nominally teaching young folks about science.

    I have certainly not drawn any conclusions, but am fascinated by the question of whether in fact through some form of education, whether by formal (classroom) or informal (such as science centers) means we can have an impact. The nature of that impact is also open to debate on a number of levels.

    I’ve begun a conversation on this topic with a number of researchers in this field, and clearly from above, the folks following Chris’ blogs have some interesting things to say on the question. If you’d like to join me in this conversation offline, feel free to get in touch with me via http://www.chabotspace.org.

    Finally, Chris thanks for your efforts to keep this conversation on belief formation going…I think it is potentially very important work, with broad impacts and applications.

  21. Sean McCorkle

    Chris,

    Can’t we use better education to teach people to see past their own blinders?

    Yet the plea for better education still persists. Frankly, I chalk the resistance up to that old “Enlightenment ethic” (if only we could make people better educated and get them better information) that is very very hard to dislodge, even when one is citing science to dislodge it.

    I can only speak personally on this; I don’t know if anyone else shares this perspective. In the previous dialog on this topic several posts back, I realized that I was having a deeply emotional reaction to this question. I find it more than a bit disturbing that there may be innate limitations to reasoning that we could not overcome no matter what we do. We’ve been clawing our way up out of the rest of the animal kingdom for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Its been a struggle with plenty of ups and downs, but it would be a real damper if there are deep obstacles that we cannot eventually surmount.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of people changing their minds on big issues. Sometimes it takes many years, but it can happen. We’ve made progress—imperfect to be sure— but we’ve outlawed slavery, managed to cure diseases, etc. We’ve made good scientific progress, so we must be doing something right. Good scientists will look for a test or observations which falsify their own conclusions, and when they think nothing does, they present to the community for others to take a shot at falsifying, and thats worked for us, with all its bruises and scrapes. Somehow Galileo was able to convince people, with enough evidence, that objects don’t fall with a speed in proportion to their mass, Barry Marshall was able to convince the medical community that ulcers were caused by H. pylori infections when the established view was that bacteria couldn’t survive in stomach acid. What happened in those cases? Why were they successes? I’m sure there was emotional attachment by the old school to the ideas that were overturned.

    Even if we can’t quite be perfect “Jedi” (I was actually thinking “Vulcan” myself—older generation!), that shouldn’t stop us from always trying to improve. To give up at some level guarantees an end to progress. You’ve been pointing out all this great research that shows the failings even in the most educated of us, but I’m sure this can be explored further. Maybe new approaches to presenting counter arguments can be studied under imaging etc. Maybe contests could somehow be devised to see who can be the least-biased as some sort of proof-of-principle of what we can achieve, and any results from those could be tried in experimental training. Probably a lot of feedback to students would be required, one-on-one, like in music or sports. (Just thinking out loud there).

    Nullius:

    But the best method against confirmation bias is to find people with different biases because of their different prior beliefs and test your ideas against them. It can result in noisy and emotional arguments. But if it has never been tested thoroughly, how can you know? We all have our biases; if we want to clear out our own errors (and it is a significant admission to claim that we don’t) we have to test our own beliefs. That requires listening to the best available arguments against them.

    I agree very much with you there. The arena of open dialog is critical. A key point is to find fresh “opponents” outside one’s normal circles or schools. If I’m not mistaken, some Zen temples had or have a tradition of sending their students to monasteries of other lineages for advanced testing. More importantly, relevant to this blog, is to avoid the internet-fragmentation effect of only discussing in those groups who already more-or-less agree.

    And in that regard: Kudos to you.

  22. Susan Anderson

    Learn how to listen. We all think we listen, but we are busy substituting all the time. I have considerable training in contemplation and take it for granted that people can set aside their own thoughts, but have found this is not true, nor has my training advantaged me – it’s a continuous struggle.

    When someone gets our attention, however, we are able to back off and empty our own minds and offer our full attention. We can never “know” what is in another person’s mind, but we can at least learn to spot the stuff we are substituting for what we are hearing if we become more self-aware. Zen, yes, also mystics in all the world’s faiths, who are interested in finding out and learning. We first need to be persuaded that we don’t know.

    Our world, however, with constant portable electronic input, is making this kind of intellectual silence harder and harder to attain.

  23. Nullius in Verba

    #20,

    Thanks!

    “(…how long did that take you?)”

    A bit less than an hour, not counting re-reading most of Areopagitica. (I looked it up to check the context for the quote, and got caught up in it.)

    #21,

    Thank you, too. And I agree with what you say on past examples of biases being overcome.

    But if we keep on agreeing, I might have to go elsewhere to find new opponents!

    Seriously, the past few posts from Chris have moved up a gear, and have adapted somewhat to our past discussions, and I’ve found them significantly more challenging to think about. There’s more scope for us to agree on parts of them, and for the remaining differences to be discussed without so much rancor. It’s a hopeful development.

  24. From Sean, ….”I find it more than a bit disturbing that there may be innate limitations to reasoning that we could not overcome no matter what we do.” And you go on to point out that in fact beliefs do change and reason does often eventually prevail…the problem is however that it does not seem to do so predictably, or at least not as fast as “reason” would seem to warrant….this is what has me fascinated…is there a way to induce or accelerate belief change?

  25. Nullius,

    Perfect. The reference to Aeropagitcia is beautiful.

  26. Sundance

    Chris, can you teach people to stop their heart from beating? There are very few beings capable of teaching someone how to control their thought and develop the power to reprogram how their brain functions. It is far too late for you at your age.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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