A lot of us have beliefs that are formed out of biases and prejudices. Often those beliefs still end up being true in the end, but they are nevertheless unjustified. A skill of the human mind is to ignore contradictory evidence and focus in on the limited evidence which supports what we want to believe and backs-up our prior assumptions. Whether it is a belief about a sports team, a racial or ethnic group, or about a restaurant, we often adopt unjustified beliefs that we support with anecdotal thinking. When these unjustified beliefs turn out to be correct, we use it as a defense of our biased thinking, and risk becoming entrenched with inaccurate assumptions of how the world works.
In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam writes about this directly. He argues that people need to be more considerate when considering whether a way of thinking is helpful or harmful, and whether a true result in the end justifies biased assumptions. Cassam writes, “leading to true belief is not the same as being conducive to knowledge. Even in cases where an epistemic vice leads someone to believe something true that doesn’t mean that they have the right to be confident that things are as they take them to be or that their belief is justified.”
To take a relatively harmless example, imagine two sports fans who bet on a college basketball game. One fan might be biased in favor of big-name schools, while another might be less biased and willing to look at sports analytics when making decisions about which team is likely to win a game. The biased individual may bet against a smaller school, and may win that bet, but it is hard to say that they would systematically win bets against small schools in favor of more recognizable schools. In any individual instance their bet might pay off, but over the long term we would probably expect the more objective individual without biases who is more open-minded with sports analytics or other survey methods to win more bets. The biased individual who wins a lucky bet does not have justified beliefs even when his bias pays off.
This type of thinking can be more harmful than bets among college basketball fans. The human mind has a remarkable ability to remember the evidence that supports those beliefs we want to be true and to ignore evidence that undermines our desired beliefs. The biased sports fan probably remembers when he was right about a small school being over-hyped, but probably doesn’t remember the times when big-named schools lost to smaller schools. This can happen with people who are biased against police officers, minority groups, or people who drive certain types of cars. The reference class doesn’t matter to our brain, but the individual anecdotes that support our prior beliefs are remembered.
Holding justified beliefs requires that we inform our beliefs based on real-world evidence with statistical value. Basing our beliefs on individual anecdotes will not consistently lead us to having accurate beliefs, and if we do hit upon a true belief from time to time, we won’t be justified in the beliefs, assumptions, and conclusions that we draw. It is important to recognize when our thinking is anecdotal, and to consider whether our beliefs are justified.