The meta-bias

“Who are you?”

The question, “who are you?” is abstract and difficult to answer. The easier alternative is “what is your life’s story?” Whenever we humans encounter a difficult question, we answer it by substituting it with one that is easier to answer.

Oliver Sacks speaks about how our identities are continuously constructed at every moment, and fit into a narrative that we whisper to ourselves. On encountering new information, it is assimilated to fit with our existing narratives. This new information can either be independent of our narrative, be aligned with it or go contrary to it.

If this information bears no relation with our identity, we are open to correction. We update our knowledge and change our view on it. This type of information is mostly trivia, like how the Great Wall of China, can be seen from the moon. On knowing that this is false (which it is), we immediately correct our beliefs.

If certain facts are aligned with our existing narrative, we embrace them and engage with them with all our attention. We remember these facts well and store them in our armoury to strengthen our narrative. This is why we remember all the good decisions of our favourite politicians or the best moments of our favourite sportsperson, because they are integral part of our identities.

With information that contradict our narratives, the ride is not pleasant. This information can trigger automatic responses in our brain that are similar to our response to physical harm. We are programmed to avoid this situation and are likely to ignore any information that triggers it. If somebody criticizes a piece of our narrative, we ignore them, avoid them or pity them for their poor understanding of the world,

This relationship we bear with information that relates to our identities is the meta-bias. This overarching bias could dictate several other cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and the backfire effect (where our existing beliefs grow stronger in the face of contradictory information). The meta-bias leads us to be blind to our own flaws – because they contradict the narratives that form our identity. It could cause group think – taking sides with several other people reinforces our own narratives. It is responsible for the endowment effect, because owning something makes it a part of our identity, and increases its value in our eyes.

The meta-bias starts off from our earliest childhood experiences. It is vital to our self-preservation, because unless we are self-centered, an animal as smart as we are would realize the inherent pointlessness of life on a tiny blue speck floating in the vastness of space and quickly lose the motivation to stay alive. Hence, evolution has made the meta-bias an automatic process – just like our reflex actions.

But considering the world we inhabit now is different from the one in which we evolved survival mechanisms, our innate tendencies can distort our understanding. The first step in making this correction is to recognize it in our everyday lives. Or have our friends point our biases out. With all the cognitive biases we are learning about in recent times, and I am confident that we are headed in the right direction.

Is my optimism also a result of one of those very biases? *Shrugs shoulder*

Inspiration: The Oatmeal comic on the backfire effect

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