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Safe Escapism or Optimal Illusion Is the Key to Our Survival

A Personal Perspective: Humans must understand confirmation bias.

Key points

  • The use of language and imagination underlies all threats to human survival, making humans more anxious and escapist than other organisms.
  • Confirmation bias is dismissing disconfirming ideas and embracing the confirming ones. It is something all humans must manage.
  • To survive as a species, humans must become more realistic while simultaneously utilizing outlets for magical thinking and escapism.

Humankind is relatively new – about 200k years old, which may seem like a lot, but if you compress all of life’s history into a year, it is the last half-hour – a mere blip.

These days, we worry that humankind might be a short-lived experiment on its last legs. Climate change, nuclear war, crises mounting, tensions rising – we can imagine humankind’s extinction taking down lots of other critters with us.

What is it about humans that makes us such a fragile, precarious evolutionary experiment? My guess is our use of language or symbols – culturally-maintained signs that we learn when young and can mix and match to imagine anything. Other organisms interpret and communicate plenty, but not with symbols. Their imaginations are limited compared to ours.

Imagination is fun and terrifying. We are a creative species but also an anxious one. Just compare what you and a dog could worry about in the dead of night. You can anticipate all sorts of real and imaginary threats and missed opportunities that are far beyond a dog’s imagination.

Can a dog imagine its own inevitable death? Missing the opportunity of a lifetime? Saying the wrong thing? Becoming unpopular? Regretting a choice it made a decade ago? Being cast into hell for sinning against God? We can’t know for certain, but it’s unlikely that their imaginations can detail such what-ifs and if-onlies the way we can.

We, humans, are trudging through a sandstorm of real and imaginary threats and missed opportunities. When you stop to think about it, it’s a wonder we can cope at all.

Stop to think about it a little more, and you’ll see why we can. Our language-fueled imaginations give us lots to worry about. Still, they also give us easy ways to rationalize, not worry, escaping some imaginary happy place rather than facing some harsh reality check.

All organisms interact selectively with their environments, such as ingesting food they can use to regenerate themselves and keep out toxins that would degenerate them. Humans also interact selectively through language, taking in ideas that nurture our self-confidence and keeping out the ideas that feel toxic.

It’s called confirmation bias: Dismissing the disconfirming ideas and embracing the confirming ones. We filter by feel, and if an idea doesn’t feel good, we’d want to shoo it away.

Our coping strategies include “noping” strategies, our many escapist ways to say “no” to the dark, and “yes” to the light. Perish the discouraging thought! Don’t go there! People say, “don’t be negative,” but that’s already our natural disposition. These days, saying “don’t be negative” is one of our favorite noping strategies.

So here we are, a language-using species checked in on vastly more worries than other critters but able to check out too, for example, opting for encouraging fake news over discouraging real news.

Confirmation bias comes naturally to us all. Decent people recognize that confirmation bias is a problem they have to manage. They take in some discouraging real news. They know they’re not perfect, so they’re willing to learn and adjust based on their mistakes.

But there’s another option: Some people treat confirmation bias as the solution to all of their problems.

Treating confirmation bias as a solution to all problems is a tempting coping strategy. Just pretend all discouragement is fake news and all encouraging news, however fictional, is real news.

Humankind is fragile because we can use confirmation bias as the solution to all of our problems. When life gets especially anxious, confirmation-bias cults and counter-cults evolve, people engage in escapism en masse.

Confirmation bias can not be the solution to all of our problems. In 3.8 billion years of life’s natural history, the standard for survival hasn’t changed. It never will. It has always been:

Adapt to reality or die.
Fit your circumstances or bye.

To survive, we have to avoid all real threats and take advantage of all real opportunities. Fake threats and opportunities are a distraction.

As humankind’s survival gets harder to navigate, it’ll be all hands on deck. We’re not going to be able to afford much distraction. Still, as survival gets harder to navigate, we can expect to become more anxious and more prone to treat confirmation bias as the solution to all of our problems.

Our extinction could come about by a delusional death spiral: We ignore reality. Reality worsens. We opt for more delusion. We ignore reality more. Reality worsens.

So banish all confirmation bias? Impossible! No human can live on a diet of reality alone. Anyone who insists they do is probably using confirmation bias as a solution to all of their problems.

As reality worsens, we’ll all need more escapism. That’s why I’m a fan of safe escapism or “optimal illusion”– in other words, opportunities to be virtual total jerks, acting like holy warriors overruling reality. We’ll need safe opportunities to play dress up, posing as the chosen, the hero, the winner, the pious elect, or even god.

For just this reason, I appreciate TV, video games, VR, spectator sports, religious and spiritual communities. It’s “ventertainment,” a chance to safely exercise the magical-thinking side of our imaginations.

Those who use confirmation bias as a solution to all problems take advantage of an unreal opportunity. They pretend that they can change the object of the game of life from “adapt to reality or die” to something easier: Just play God, moment to moment.

If you’re God, you get to do anything, and no matter what you do, it’s perfect. You can pretend you’re perfectly safe and free and absolutely infallible and absolutely unconstrained. You’ll anger a lot of people, but they probably won’t fight back. If they do, just play God some more until they give up.

There are plenty of direct threats to humanity that have our attention these days. Underlying them all, though, is the language-fueled power of imagination that makes us more visionary and hopeful than other critters, but also more anxious and delusional, tempting us to check out, dissociate into delusion, playing God, and using confirmation bias in ways that no other organisms – not even superpredators can even imagine.