Egocentric Bias

I was reading an political science paper in an academic journal last night and came across a sentence that really stood out to me. The paper focused on the staffers who work for members of congress and whether they held accurate views of the constituents represented by the member of congress that they worked for. The paper finds that congressional staffers routinely misinterpret the views of their constituents, particularly overestimating just how conservative their constituents tend to be.

 

One reason given for the misinterpretation of constituent views was the opinions and ideology of the staffers themselves. In particular, egocentric bias may be pushing the staffers to see the views of their constituents in a warped light. The authors write, “Egocentric bias is a consistent finding in psychology that suggests individuals use  their own beliefs as a heuristic for estimating the beliefs and opinions of others.” In other words, we believe that people are like us and think the way we do.

 

In political science and in a democracy the implications of egocentric bias are huge. Our representatives could totally misinterpret what we think is good or bad, could totally fail to see what issues are important to us, and could support (or oppose) legislation thinking they were doing what we, their constituents, wanted. But really our representatives might end up acting against the wishes of a majority of the people they represent.

 

In our own lives, egocentric bias can also play a huge role. It may not seem like a big deal if we play some music from a speaker while hiking, if we don’t wipe down the machine at the gym, or if we wear that shirt with a funny yet provocative saying on it. After all, we are not bothered with these things and if we assume most people are like us then no one will really care too much. Unfortunately, other people (possibly a plurality or majority of others) may see our behaviors as reprehensible and deeply upsetting. We made an assumption that things we like are things that others like and that things that bother us are things that bother others. We adapted our behavior around our own interests and just assumed everyone else would understand and go with the flow. We bought in to egocentric behavior and acted in ways that could really upset or offend other people.

 

Egocentric bias is something we should work to recognize and move beyond. When we assume everyone is like us, we become less considerate, and that will show in how we behave. If instead we recognize that people are not all like us, we can start to see our world and our actions through new perspectives. This can open up new possibilities for our lives and help us to behave in ways that are more helpful toward others rather than in ways that are more likely to upset other people. What we will find is that we are able to have better connections with people around us and develop better relationships with people because we are more considerate and better able to view the world as they may see it, rather than just assuming that everyone sees the world how we do.

Changing Your Views on a Group of People

An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.

 

Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.

 

I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.

Believing in the Self and Achieving Success

Ryan Holiday encourages his readers to be confident in who they are, but to build their confidence through real work and effort and to base their belief in themselves on real achievement. His book Ego is the Enemy is a look at how our egos can ruin our lives and put us in situations where we cannot be successful unless we are honest with ourselves about our abilities. He quotes a biographer of a little known Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, to help us see what honest and sincere self-confidence looks like. The full passage that he quotes is:

 

“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable – those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the shame of insincere self-deprecation but the modest of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”

 

When we believe in ourselves despite having no reason to believe that we can accomplish what we desire, we risk pursuing a goal without being honest about ourselves, our position, our advantages, and our limitations. We put ourselves in a position where we believe we understand more than we truly do and where we believe that we know more about the world than we do. This may help us bulldoze our way to success, but it may also cause us to be brash around colleagues and friends who may be better suited than us for achieving goals to make a true difference in the world. Ultimately, this form of ego reduction requires that we also shift the traditional view of success. If our success is not tied to our own income and to being better than other people, then we can see success as helping improve some aspect of the world, and we can then improve the way we learn from others and achieve success by helping others make a difference. Modesty and a healthy appreciation for ones abilities can aid us in our growth by allowing us to be comfortable in a position where we make a big difference, even if we are not in the spotlight. While keeping us grounded on our true abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, humility helps us grow and learn and so that we can develop the skills necessary to accomplish things that matter most.

Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

The Friends Around Us

Joshua Fields Millburn wrote the forward for Colin Wright’s book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, and in his forward he looks at the ways in which many of us develop and maintain friendships. To start it off, he writes, “If I could go back in time and give my eighteen-year-old self one nugget of advice, it would be this: You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”

Fields Millburn explains that we often fall into a trap where we develop relationships with the people around us simply because they are around us. It is not a bad thing to become friends with neighbors, co-workers, and people in the same geographic locations as ourselves, but in some ways it can be a little limiting. Having positive and meaningful relationships with people around us is important and can make a big impact in our lives and the connections we have with the places we live, work, or go to school, but we can also strive to have greater friendships with people beyond our small geographic region.

Throughout his forward he encourages us to look first inward and understand ourselves and become someone that we can and want to be friends with. After reflecting on ourselves and developing our values, we can align our actions, and begin to develop true relationships based not on proximity, but on values. The trouble, explains Fields Millburn, with the proximity approach to friends and relationships is that we can’t always find people at work or in our neighborhoods who share the same values that we do. We don’t need to share the same beliefs to have the same values, but associating and living with people who don’t share your values in some way puts your actions and habits at odds with the values that you wish to live by. Striving beyond our local constraints to meet people who share our values and focus their lives to advance those values will give us a positive model and sounding board for our own lives, even if they are distant from us physically.

When I first returned to this quote I worried that seeking out people beyond our proximal friends who shared our same values would contribute to the already evident problem of information bubbles that we see across the country. Many people become isolated their media and information streams to only view that which they agree with or that which supports their prior beliefs. But what Fields Millburn explains is that it should be our values, and not our beliefs that align with the people with whom we associate. On a deep level we should make sure that our lives, goals, desires, and actions are in some ways connected with positive values, and we should expect that our beliefs built on top of those values will vary.

At one point, Fields Millburn specifically addresses the idea of bubbles and is critical of the isolationist bubbles that many people live in when restricting their friendships to spatially close people. Looking beyond those people who are immediately present in our lives will allow us to expand beyond the bubble that we live within.

Can We Change the Thoughts of Others?

A topic that has come up again and again for me since the November 2016 election is the idea that we may not be able to change anyones thinking through discussion, debate, or argument. People become so entrenched in beliefs, and are so reluctant to hearing information that does not support their opinion that we are not able to change anyone’s thought patterns besides our own. Author Ryan Holiday addresses this idea in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, by writing,

“You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.”

I think that Holiday is correct, but I think the real message from his quote above is the idea that you must find common ground with another before you look to change the way they think. People will discredit those who think differently from them and ignore information, even an Everest sized mountain of information indicating their views are incorrect. Speaking with people, listening to their views, understanding why they think a certain way, and offering our perspective are the only ways to honest communicate with others.

I recently listened to episode 174 of the podcast, Decode DC, and they brought on a guest to discuss this exact problem. The show features an interview with Canadian professor Jeremy Frimer from the University of Winnipeg who did a study of American’s and beliefs. He offered participants 10 dollars to read 8 statements disagreeing with their views, or 7 dollars to read 8 statements that were in line with their views. About 60 percent of people chose less money and read the statements that reinforced their views. In the episode, Dr. Frimer offers the same advice as Holiday, you must listen to the other person, understand their views, and identify your commonality before you can begin to discuss differences.

I believe we have begun to attach politics to our identify in a new way, and our social media infused world tells us that we should have a voice and opinion for any given situation. With political ideology being incorporated with our identity, political views seem to be coupled with who we are in a dangerous entrenched manner. We feel compelled to be resolute in our identity, and any information that does not align is a threat to our fundamental being. I don’t have fully developed thoughts and ideas on how social media and a pressure to build political ideology have become infused with our ideology, but if my ideas are correct, then the only way to have a civil discussion with someone is to follow the advice of Holiday and Frimer and disarm first ourselves when discussing our differences (especially political) with another person.

Truth and Change

Holding on to a belief so tightly that you will not allow yourself to see the world from different view points can be a dangerous thing.  Marcus Aurelius recognized how damaging it can be to stand firm in our convictions without allowing our decisions and beliefs to be based on reason over our desires to be right.  In his book Meditations the Roman emperor wrote, “if any many is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured.  But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” What Aurelius is showing is that he is open to viewpoints and ideas that are different from his own, and that he is willing to change his beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to do so.

 

The challenge we face today is how our identity is fundamentally tied to the views and beliefs that we hold. I imagine this is not a new phenomenon in human experience, but in our culture today we often tie our political, spiritual, and social views to our identity, making our opinions more salient and rigid.  When we develop a belief today, we build our lives around it and use that belief to express who we are.  The tribes we belong to and who we see as viable partners (in everything from marriage, to business, to sports) becomes in one way determined by who is like us, and who has beliefs and viewpoints that most closely match our own.  We understand that it is a negative for society if we organize our tribes based on our racial identity and in many ways we strive for diversity to eliminate the importance of our racial identity, but for things that are less visible, we often times cheer for those who are unchanging, and we denigrate those whose identity seems to change.

 

I believe the increasing salience of identity based on behavior and belief is dangerous for our society. When we lock ourselves in, and define ourselves based on our interests, views, beliefs, and inclinations, we limit our possibilities and we limit not just our own progress, but often times the progress of the societies to which we belong.

 

It is hard to recognize at first, but our society does not want us to live in the gray and seek truth. What our society wants, now that we are not able to define who we are and who is part of our group based on race, is that we wear our unwavering identity on our sleeves so that others know how to think about us, and so that we know how to think about ourselves relative to others.  Two of the most clear examples from our culture of identity becoming arbitrarily tied to beliefs and preferences in a way that serves to define us and prevent our beliefs from changing are in the worlds of politics and sports.  In both cases switching teams can be catastrophic and lead to criticism from not just the group to which you originally belonged, but also from the group to which you joined.  In politics we expect our politicians to have firm beliefs that do not change over time, and if we see a candidate switch sides or switch beliefs we call them a flip-flopper and suggest that they will do anything to get the vote.  In sports, fans who change the teams they root for are often called band-wagon fans, and rather than following the teams who perform the best and rooting for the teams who win the most, we are encouraged to pick one team to root for with loyal support regardless of whether or not they are competitive, well managed, or even entertaining.

 

In both of these areas we are better off as individuals and as a society if we allow ourselves to change and to not be defined by specific ideas.  Like Aurelius, seeking truth in politics, and understanding that we may be unconsciously seeking only information that aligns with our previously held belief, can help us overcome ignorance and logical fallacies.  In sports, we can be free to express ourselves in a more dynamic way, and we may have a lower blood pressure while watching games.  There is no reason that any field needs to be tied so strongly to our identity that we are unwilling to change or interact with others who do not see the world as we do.  Becoming dynamic in our identity is a challenge that means we must abandon our belief in dichotomies, since the majority of the world cannot be approached from a black and white perspective. If we do not allow our identities to shift and change with reason, then we will never live in the gray, which is where life truly takes place. We will never allow ourselves or our society to expand and progress in a way that accepts and welcomes everyone uniformly.

Reconsider

One of the ideas I loved in Colin Wright’s book Considerations is his approach to beliefs and belief systems.  Wright emphasizes awareness and flexibility in our beliefs, and encourages us to understand the assumptions and question we we unquestioningly take to be true.  For him, having a belief system that is locked in and unchanging can be damaging as it does not allow you to grow or let your viewpoint evolve.  In his book, the author writes about the value in actively challenging your beliefs and aligning your thoughts with things you learn as your perspectives grow.

 

Wright writes, “Only by establishing a habit of checking your own ideas can you be certain that at any given moment you’re making decisions based on the most up-to-date set of personal beliefs available.” This quote resonates with me because it aims right at self-awareness, which has been a major focus on mine the last few years. By focusing in on yourself and working to truly understand your thoughts you can find areas where you have opportunities to grow and become a better person. What Wright discusses in his quote is the importance of practicing awareness and making sure your decisions and actions align with your personal beliefs. Without a sense of awareness it is hard to develop a personal philosophy and act in a way that lives out that philosophy.

 

However, Wright is not just encouraging us to build a personal philosophy and stick to it as a rigid backboard for our life. In my previous blog post, “Valuable Possessions” I wrote about Wright’s belief that a personal philosophy that allows change and flexibility offers greater value to the individual.  Wright argues that we should constantly look for more information from valuable sources to learn and gain new perspectives. Through this process it is expected that we will begin to see the world in new ways, and as we take in more information we must allow our thoughts to shift so that we can grow. “There’s never a bad time to reconsider what you know to be true. Wright states, “No belief should be safe from your investigation, and all should be regularly revisited.” By continually pushing ourselves to challenge entrenched ideas, accepting that we can change and develop new viewpoints, and practicing self awareness, we can grow and develop in ways that make us more open and engaged in the world around us.