Resistance to Disconfirmation: Easily my favourite cognitive bias – some thoughts on why it persists

English: Albert Einstein, official 1921 Nobel ...
English: Albert Einstein, official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Français : Albert Einstein, photographie officielle du Prix Nobel de Physique 1921. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Professor Galbraith, economist, speaking in th...
Professor Galbraith, economist, speaking in the Peacock Theatre after accepting an honorary degree from LSE. Taken by Nigel Stead. IMAGELIBRARY/881 Persistent URL:… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Leon Festinger, seminal theorist in the area o...
Leon Festinger, seminal theorist in the area of cognitive dissonance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are lots of cognitive biases – systematic deviations from logic and rationality present across a wide range of human information processing domains, including perception, judgement and reasoning.

Resistance to disconfirmation is one of the most fascinating biases, where individuals and groups simply will not or can not believe that some belief they hold is simply, manifestly  and verifiably untrue. It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. The great social psychologist, Leon Festinger, wrote a wonderful book ‘When Prophecy Fails‘ about a small group of apocalyptic end-of-world cultists, who were themselves alone to be saved by aliens when the rest of world was to be immolated. Festinger wrote beautifully of their efforts to preserve their beliefs, despite their evident falsehood. In the end, the aliens communicated with the group leader via  “automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”” (wiki).

Regarding whether he was worried if empirical tests would disconfirm his theory of relativity, Einstein famously said “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct!”.

As John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, said: ‘Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

I was reminded of this when reading Chris Dillow’s blog, where he drew attention to an argument about a misreading of a simple arithmetical  quantity in a table between Jonathan Portes (an economist) and two Tory MPs Stewart Jackson and  Douglas Carswell. The twitter feed is hilarious to anyone without a dog in the fight – the MP is clearly in error, but can’t and won’t admit it. And his friend isn’t much help, either. Do read the feed – it is well worth it.

What are the roots of this kind of resistance to admitting you are wrong? Dan Kahan’s work on motivated numeracy sheds some light here. In a series of experiments, Kahan shows that ‘[n]umerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks‘. There is a further point: how group membership and status impacts on individual reasoning. Kahan (via and via) says that:

The urge to maintain status within one’s social network is so powerful, …., that well-educated people will use their information-gathering and computational skills to marshal a more impressive body of evidence in support of whatever identity it is (freethinking skeptic, caring mother hen) that earns them brownie points in their troop.

Science works because people can and do disagree and, in the end, the data are the thing. A colleague of mine once had a reviewer comment on his paper that ‘arguments are good, but data are better’!

It may take time, but we slowly learn not to fool ourselves (in the end). After all, Nature doesn’t care about our biases!

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

One thought on “Resistance to Disconfirmation: Easily my favourite cognitive bias – some thoughts on why it persists

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