The Mythos Behind Our Own Deceptive “Rightness”
Where confirmation bias and false narratives hurt us.
Posted November 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- We construct an internal universe of beliefs validated by daily events, interactions, and personal experiences with the world.
- The default mode network (DMN) in the brain where we create narratives may be modified by "affective bias" and "feeling states."
- Challenging internal bias substantiated by false narratives starts with a simple filtering mechanism based on Gestalt psychology principles.
Much of our internal universe is based on stories and beliefs we have constructed about things. These aspects are fed and/or validated by daily events, interactions, and personal experiences with the world and how we feel about them.
Years ago, teaching sociology at a university, one of my most engaged students was a young man whose goal was to eventually serve as a missionary. One day he came by my office, appearing somewhat deflated. He revealed he was taking an English class with a professor who was making him feel very unsettled and depressed. He recounted the professor’s first introduction, which included an incontrovertible dialogue about being an “atheist.” Additionally, he would find ways to insert the topic and argue his beliefs throughout the semester.
The student was confused by an English class so imbued with the professor’s own personal beliefs. The unrelenting and continuous discussions were starting to wear down his psyche.
I told the student to first step back and address it from a philosophical vantage, first boiling it down to this central question: Did he believe this person to have all the knowledge in the world?
When the student said, “No,” I said, “OK, that is the first key thing to understand.”
Secondly, as his sociology teacher, I asked him to remember all that we had studied about how people come to know their world. One of the things the student did not know about this professor was that he had been a pastor for years before his current role and that when the man’s wife took an interest in someone else and left him, his world collapsed in on him and his beliefs. He traded the pulpit for the academic lectern and a newer perspective.
I understand how “social ingressions,” the things that enter our lives, can change people and their beliefs. Nature has a strong way of influencing what we do. The result may be a narrowed and biased perspective that goes imperceptibly unquestioned and woven "psychically" into our thinking, to our own detriment.
Simply Google “Are eggs good for you?” and you will also see its counter, “Are eggs bad for you?” If I like eggs, my first inclination is to go with the first inquiry because it may reinforce my position.
Confirmation bias and false narratives are complementary concepts that work in a subtle dance between emotions and logic. At the very stem of these two processes are the “emotional levers” that encourage us to act on “partially” realized beliefs.
Such belief is quite perseverant: When individuals have created a causal structure to support their beliefs, they retain those beliefs even if they are informed that the initial information was incorrect (Jackson, 2018b).
What is confirmation bias?
According to research by Gary Charness and Chetan Dave (2017), confirmation bias (CB) is defined as “an agent's tendency to seek, interpret and use evidence in a manner biased toward confirming their own existing beliefs or hypotheses.”
The person who holds or asserts a particular view and is challenged by that view may engage in a sort of Bayesian inference process, seeking and gathering more supporting evidence that will reinforce their perspective.
German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler may have seen this as a positively reinforced mental set (Pastore, 1993). What this means, though, is that we may feel motivated to reinforce and solidify our position by updating beliefs with newer information that feeds the belief. However, such a deviated process means that our evidence acquisition is insubstantial, partially realized, and lacking. As a therapist, I have also observed this “self-modifying” filter work its way into depression, relationships, and major life decisions in harmful ways.
The Bias That Feeds a” False” Narrative
A part of the brain that deals with narratives and sense-making is the default-mode network (DMN). False (unreliable) narratives that emerge from the DMN result from a mismatch, or absence, of the appropriate, frontally negotiated affective bias filtering needed to differentiate sources of experience (Mendez, 2019).
Affective bias thus represents our broad values, attitudes, or judgments prompted by automatic feelings. As a result, stories we tell ourselves and what we believe about them can be powerfully motivated by our “feeling states” and fed through automated reactions, overriding any counter-deliberation.
Challenging Confirmation Bias and the False Narrative
Sociology tells us that the first primary influencers of socialization in shaping who we become are primarily family and friends, followed by experiences. If we were told by a parent, for instance, that we were "not responsible" as teenagers, then we might carry that forward as a deeply discrediting characteristic we assign to ourselves, “I am not a responsible person.”
Then, if we ever fall short on things like deadlines or appointments, those instances might validate the early childhood assignment of not being responsible enough. Add to this the power dynamic of the other person (parent), their role (authority figure), or the governing gravitas of the event (public forum), and our CB and the false narrative become stronger. In some cases, a person might overly compensate in the other direction and desire to prove something wrong so strongly that it governs everything they do, such as over-providing for others, setting unrealistic goals around what it means to be responsible, and more.
Using Filters to Weigh In on What You Believe
Try this filter-response process based on Gestalt psychology principles to see if there are other things at work in your current perceptions.
Does the perspective you hold have any of the following elements?:
- Does your view deeply discredit others or even yourself? (Possible emotional motivators = Shame/Offended)
- Does it frame only one view, namely the one you hold of yourself or others? (Possible emotional motivators = Suspicious/Vulnerable)
- Does it create defensiveness in you when engaging others about your views? (Possible emotional motivators = Pride/Anger/Hurt)
- Do you have a “personal” relationship to the view you hold based on something you've negatively experienced? (Possible emotional motivators = Fear/Revulsion)
These starting points may encourage more self-reflection and deeper introspection when considering the position strongholds we tend to protect.
As Michael Strong, author of The Habit of Thought, says, "It doesn’t matter how smart, expert or mature someone appears to be, no one owns a comprehensive purview of reality because it is too infinitely complex, but we do have an inherent responsibility to garner an accurate expression of our relationship to that reality.”
Examining our biases and narratives might help us overcome issues that deeply reside within us and our relations with others.
Charness, G., & Dave, C. (2017). Confirmation bias with motivated beliefs. Games and Economic Behavior, 104, 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geb.2017.02.015
Jackson, S. (2018, May 14). Do People Correct Their Beliefs When False Stories Are Initially Presented as True? Institute for Public Relations. https://instituteforpr.org/persistence-of-belief-change-in-the-face-of-…
Mendez, M. F. (2019). Frontolimbic affective bias and false narratives from brain disease. Medical Hypotheses, 128, 13–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2019.04.020
Pastore, N. (1993). The “Inside-Outside Problem” and Wolfgang Köhler. Foundations of Perceptual Theory, 221–229. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0166-4115(08)62774-0