Another great Newsweek column from Sharon Begley, The Limits of Reason—Why evolution may favor irrationality, describes a phenomenon of human error that brings to mind Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference. Begley talks about the natural human tendency to succumb to confirmation bias when, for example, we have the idea that woman are bad drivers. We see and recall only the bad female drivers we’ve seen lately and not the good ones. Argyris describes the same thing; we walk up our ladder of inference, discarding the data that doesn’t fit with our previous theories and overemphasizing the data that does, and eventually our actions are impacted. Next time we see a woman driver making a minor mistake that perhaps would have gone under the radar screen from a male driver, we give in to road rage. It’s irrational, Begley says, but we all do it.
What’s interesting is that Begley cites a more recent idea from cognitive scientists that may explain why we do this. It’s because irrationality helps us “devise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people,” according to psychologist Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania. This is called motivated reasoning, and by this theory we come to realize that the holder of the confirmation bias about woman drivers simply wants to convince us that it’s true. Argyris probably says the same thing when he says that we filter the data around us according to our “mental models,” but he’s a little more diplomatic about it, focusing on the fact that we can’t process everything that goes on around us so we have to choose certain data to notice and filter everything else out. The guy who wants everyone to believe woman can’t drive, on the other hand, has a hidden and at least semi-conscious agenda. Sounds more insidious, doesn’t it?
Begley’s other examples are, similar to the women drivers example, things I get worked up about. Bush looking for evidence of WMD in Iraq because he was already convinced of its existence; tea partiers looking for evidence of Obama’s foreignness and ignoring the fact of his birth certificate.
It’s easy to think of workplace examples. The manager who has to make cuts and so looks for performance problems that don’t exist, because it will make it easier to do what already has to be done. The problem employee who is convinced of unfair treatment and thus can’t see that there are very really reasons why she’s being counseled and disciplined for chronic tardiness. The senior leader who has decided a recent decline in profits is caused entirely by lazy workers and now can’t see any other theory as even remotely plausible. Perhaps our focus in such situations needs to shift from trying to reason with someone to asking ourselves the question, “What is this person trying to persuade me of? And why?”
The problem, as always, is that we can see this stuff when it applies to someone else. But it’s not so easy when it’s about our own selves and our firmly held (irrational) beliefs.