Featured image of post Cognitive Biases - Part 07: Belief Bias

Cognitive Biases - Part 07: Belief Bias

I think he is right because I believe in him

👋🏼👋🏼 Hello! Thank you for stopping by.

😀 Please note that this is the seventh in a series of articles I am writing on Cognitive Biases. If you haven’t read the other six yet, I’d recommend you read them first. Links below:

  1. Confirmation Bias
  2. Fundamental Attribution Error
  3. Ikea effect
  4. Availability Heuristic
  5. Framing effect
  6. Forer effect

Let’s get started with this one!

Introduction

Let’s go back to the 1600s for a while and explore a couple of the discoveries back then!

Experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa

You would have heard of Galileo Galilei. If not, he is the one known for his famous experiment of dropping two objects of different weights from the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’. His experiment contradicted what Aristotle had taught before: heavier objects fall faster than the lighter objects. And as the experiment reveals, both the objects hit the ground almost at the same time, busting the popular belief till then.

Isn’t it very intuitive to think that a lighter object will obviously take more time than a heavier object? We experience this phenomenon daily - if a pen and paper slip away from a table, the pen hits the ground first, isn’t it? It is a fact that the pen hits first, but we do not tend to think beyond the easy evidence. The easy evidence is that pen weighs more than the paper, so we correlate the weight of the object to the time taken.

Unfortunately, that is not true. A few experiments (as Galileo and others had done) would reveal that the shape of the object, the density, the buoyancy and air friction determine the time taken, not the weight per se! And this was quite a revelation back then. Due to these and a lot of other discoveries, Galileo would be called the ‘father of modern physics’ by many later on.

Sun or Earth, which one is the centre?

Let’s look at another work by Galileo that questioned a more popular and widely accepted belief in society - geocentrism (the concept that the earth is at the centre).

The contradicting theory is ‘heliocentrism’. Also known as Copernicanism, derived from the name of renowned mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus who first built mathematical models for theoretical explanations, heliocentrism is the astronomical model in which the Sun is at the centre of the universe and the Earth and other planets revolve around it.

Galileo successfully provided physical evidence to explain this phenomenon, but the then community disregarded his claims and forced him to accept that the Earth only was the centre of the universe. And due to this, in 1633, Galileo was ordered to stand trial, was imprisoned for a few years and was then held on house arrest for the rest of his life!

But why was it so difficult for people to believe this newly proposed way of the planetary system which has some scientific explanation?
You see, in the Catholic world prior to Galileo’s conflict, geocentrism agreed with the literal interpretation of the Bible in several places: Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, Psalm 104:5, Ecclesiastes 1:5 and all the people subscribed to this view as it has got references in the Bible itself. As the connection was established with the Bible, it was hard to contradict this view.

I would like to highlight two takeaways from the above two anecdotes.

Takeaways

From the leaning tower of Pisa experiment:

A belief could be false no matter how popular or intuitive it is, and it takes rigorous experiments to prove it

From the Galileo’s story:

No matter how scientific an experiment and explanation is for a phenomenon, people will not be ready to change their beliefs. In fact, people will be ready to take extreme measures to safeguard their beliefs than try to find out the truth

What is Galileo doing in an article that is supposed to be on psychology, you wonder?
These two anecdotes are only to convey that our beliefs and belief systems are very difficult to understand, difficult to prove and difficult to change. And thus, a lot of what we say, what we do and what we decide are based on these true or false beliefs, knowingly or unknowingly.


That brings us to what is called a ‘Belief Bias’:\

“We judge an argument’s strength not by how strongly it supports the conclusion but by how plausible the conclusion is in our minds.”

Let’s look at a couple of my personal experiences around this.

The belief dilemma

Lesson from my first startup

My first startup was WhatsDplan (more details about this in my earlier article IKEA effect). We started WhatsDdplan because we believed in the idea. And frankly, this belief is good. Without any belief, you wouldn’t achieve anything great. Belief is needed to do something which otherwise would not have been possible. If you want to conquer the moon you need to first believe it and then only will you be able to experience it. But even for that, you need to have a very good grasp of reality and not be drown in a false sense of belief.

My assessment about ‘WhatsDplan’, if I recollect some of the discussions I have had with a few investors and also with a few of my friends and colleagues, was riveted around belief and belief alone! Rather than a strong argument on ‘why’ exactly would it work, I thought it will work because ‘WE’ were building it and we were good. We were invested in the idea since the beginning and did not want to doubt it even for a little while. We carried on with a lot of vigour and purpose, and did not want to give up.

Unfortunately, the startup ended in a tragedy. We had to shut it down after a year-long effort to make it work. We missed a lot of critical observations and assessments which could have helped us pivot and survive. Well, let’s save that story for another day!

Skewed beliefs of my friend

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend. He has had a troubled past and was still figuring it out - about his life and career. He has tried his hand at a variety of things, but nothing seemed concrete. He hopped from one thing to another after giving it a try for a short while - from analytics to data science to finance to consulting to starting up. He did 100 different things and lacked focus in all.

As we were having a conversation about what could he possibly do next, he said he wanted to pursue UPSC! I was shocked. He believed that he could just do it because he thought so. There was no strong argument for it. All he said was, ‘because I want to do it, I will do it!’ But I knew that this was another whim he was having. As his past suggested, he struggled to keep focus in getting a job as an analyst itself, I knew, he will not have the focus and dedication required to crack UPSC. But he was just driven by the idea of it without having a credible argument!

I couldn’t convince him out of it. I am still wondering how do we make someone realise if they are so driven just by their beliefs!

As I think more about it, I realise that the belief bias is not just seen at a personal level like the above examples. We are exposed to it as a society, as a community and as a global fraternity as well.

Let’s take a look at some examples

The age-old patriarchy

It took me one complete season of Money Heist to realise that patriarchy is ingrained in a lot of things we do on a daily basis. I do not want to go into the details of the heist, but on the face of it, we think we are quite liberal in our thinking and believe that we are not being biased based on gender. But, if we critically assess everything we do on a daily basis, we realise that we have taken so many things for granted:

  • assuming power
  • judging based on gender rather than intellect or physical capacity
  • taking unanimous decisions without any consultation
  • preconceived roles and responsibilities
  • entrusting ownership without power
  • a lot more…

There could be reasons for some of the practices (not the above) that bestow roles for males and females separately in the society, which is good as this furthers our progress as a society. But, many of these practises are simply followed because they are just laid out there, because we have been following them since a long time and for no other reason.

Buying a car gives a good life

I have many friends who believe that having a car gives a good life. Ask them why, and they say ‘a car is needed, no?’ The argument dies at the beginning itself. There could be many reasons how a car improves the lifestyle (if not life) which is fine, but a deeper thought is not given into these when such a purchase is made. It is bought because ‘we need a car, right?’

The silly bad omens

There are many instances in my childhood when we did a few things just because we believed them to be true! Let’s take a look at one such incident.

We are three kids in our family - my brother, sister and I. I vividly remember the incident when we had to go to a nearby relative’s house. We had to attend a function in the night and had to walk to the relative’s place.

‘We should not travel in groups of three’, we heard someone tell us, one of our elders. As we were three of us, we believed that it was not good for us to go. But there was a way around, a hack to bypass this! My sister picked up a stone from the ground, put it in the purse and told we were then good to go. We had ‘stone’ as the fourth member, can you believe it?

Sounds silly, right? It is!

There are more:

  • Looking into a broken mirror is bad luck. You can judge me, but I am still scared to look into a broken mirror!
  • A black cat crossing the path is bad luck. Many of you still believe this, right?

More examples

  • Graduating from an IIT gives a good life
  • Charity is just donating some money to an NGO
  • Our religion is superior to the other
  • My responsibility as a citizen is just to cast my vote

How are our beliefs formed?

Many of our beliefs are formed because of what we see and perceive from the society, the environment and everything happening around us. We ponder on some, question some, but accept many as they are. We develop some form of intuition with things and how to deal with them. We take them for granted on the face of it. As we develop these beliefs, when we encounter a similar situation and respond to it, we consider it to be valid without critically looking at the situation.

Because of social conditioning, we are simply said to follow a few things and believe in a few things because it makes life easy or fits someone’s way of how life should be lived, or what leads to a fulfilling life. It may broadly be true, but is not applicable for everyone, in every situation every time. There will be exceptions and we need to embrace those exceptions, for those exceptions and the ability to tread them with required attention separates the bad from the good, and the good from the great.

As kids, we believe in what our parents say, our teachers say, our elders say and we carry them with ourselves as we grow. But the world changes with time and so does our ability to understand and assess things. What you were told to be true may not hold good at a later point in time. Hence, it is advised to question the premise of the belief(s) or the belief system itself from time to time.

Though intuition is good as it helps us decide faster without wasting our precious time and energy, there is one problem: it may not be right always! So, we need to be aware and cautious of how we are coming to some conclusion. And correct ourselves from time to time.

Though we are required to validate everything, it is practically not possible. Many times, we are forced to learn from others’ experiences. And when learning from others’ experiences, we need to critically question and assess the conclusion before believing in it. And many times we need to place our belief in a person, not the belief itself. You may not be able to critically assess the situation always but at least be cognizant of the fact that something is believed because ‘someone’ you trust said so!

It is hard to critically assess and question the existing set of notions and beliefs - sometimes because we don’t know that our decisions are driven by them and sometimes because we do not want to put ourselves in the struggle of pursuit of truth as we are lazy and afraid! So, it is hard to control our existing belief systems from interfering in our objective decision making. It requires training, a lot of it, just like overcoming any other cognitive bias.

How to avoid this bias?

Here are a few things that you could do to safeguard yourself from this bias.

  • Look for objective reasons. If you think something is true or something is the best thing to do, look for objective reasons why it could be true. Don’t get carried away by the end result just because that seems plausible or intuitive
  • Break the end result into smaller measurable chunks that could be objectively assessed. Assessing smaller pieces is easier compared to assessing the whole
  • List down all the different reasons why the belief could be wrong. And disprove them! Rather than cherishing why it could be right, focus on why it could be ‘wrong’. Until you find all the reasons why it could not be wrong, you do not believe it

Thank you for reading! 🙏🏼

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💬 Also, if you would like to add some of your own personal observations about this bias please leave your comment or feedback below.