We ferociously defend beliefs—especially beliefs about ourselves. While we readily dispose of evidence contradicting our beliefs, we blindly accept flimsy evidence in support. Vocal supporters of presidential candidate almost never switch positions. No matter what is revealed. A devastating report is excused. But when the slightest shred of indecency is detected in the opponent, the world stops, the revelation is gleefully presented as unforgivable. But if the tables turn, and our candidate makes the same error, it is excused as non-consequential. Fake news!
This concept of bias judgments applies to more than political positions; we invest in our self-image, challenges to that image brings fury. We ferociously protect beliefs about ourselves—negative or positive. We are invested in our beliefs. These ego investments need to be defended or we suffer an emotional fallout. The need to be right trumps being right. Beliefs create the interpreting context of new data, creating the context to sort and organize the facts. When something doesn’t fit, it’s easier to reject the information than to re-examine the interpreting context.
Memories and Bias
We constantly shuffle memories in and out of storage, recalling and updating with each experience. Each episode smoothly integrating into the autobiographical self—the structure used to define the self. We need a backdrop of experience to define the self and we need a steadiness of self to interpret new experiences. We remain connected to past hurts, failures, successes, and pleasures; these become the building blocks—we are the person behind all these good and bad the experiences.
Adding to the complexity, the autobiographical self is constantly reconstructing. Life isn’t static. The view of self is a dynamic changing foundation. Memories adjust to fit the current image. Children may see themselves as bad kids deserving punishment; but with age and guidance, they may adjust the meaning, seeing themselves as a victim, or a survivor. Because of the complexity, the ready availability to causes almost every situation, we can easily pick and choose meanings behind events. And when obvious facts emerge contradicting our conclusion, we can simply cognitively dispose of the evidence and focus attention on friendlier facts.
Memories influence the image of self, but the image of self also influences the memories. Our autobiography of self becomes the dynamic backdrop biasing the interpretation of experience. What we see changes and how we see it changes.
Context Dependent Interpretations
Some entertain negative self-images, others positive. But most engage in both. Depending on mood and the nature of experience, we vary the standards used to interpret the incoming data. Context matters.
“Life isn’t static. The view of self is a dynamic changing foundation. Memories adjust to fit the current image.”
Fundamental Attribution Error
Studies indicate that over ninety percent of people believe they are above average in driving skills—a statistical impossibility. Spend thirty-minutes on a California freeway and we quickly realize the great error in this false proclamation of superior drivers. With a little reality-based evaluation, the superior driver can improve by allowing more stopping distance, paying more attention, and slowing down. We refer to this biased interpretation of self as the fundamental attribution error in psychology.
The biased self-autobiography influences behavior; not always for our benefit. In the examples case, the biased view of driving skill may interfere with careful and attentive driving. Biases of self also greatly interfere with important relationships. Our biased evaluations of our relationships skills interfere with mindful attention to the essentials for healthy connections. And when our relationships implode, we can happily skip over our involvement in the destruction, dispose evidence of any wrong doing, and focus on the imperfections of our partner.
Faulty beliefs and Maladaptive Behaviors
Some beliefs are more invasive, intruding on our private lives, and obstructing mindful efforts for change. When we believe we possess above average relationship skills, discernment, and logic, our faulty beliefs interfere with relationships. Our beliefs often lead to maladaptive behaviors that negatively impact our lives.
Instinctively, when our beliefs contradict someone else’s, we fail to consider the possibility of being in the wrong; it is always their error. These extremely biased beliefs are dangerous, we miss cases when we are blatantly incorrect.
Blaming partners is a typical response when relationships falters. Not uncommon for both partners to believe they were the one wronged—the true victim. Both individuals relying on their own biased interpretations and filtered facts. Both partners invested in changing the partner instead of improving the self. We dispose of any evidence suggesting we need to do personal work.
We conveniently self-deceive to hide personal inadequacies—concealing from ourselves. Defense mechanisms, unconsciously deployed, protect from the discomforts of truth. Most convicted criminals adamantly defend or deny their crimes—no matter how heinous. Improvement demands we recognize these deceptive powers. We don’t evenly attribute facts to others the same way we do to ourselves.
A Single Kind Act
Considering the large populations in modern cities, and the sheer number of interactions, we work extremely well with others. Most live their lives without causing harm. We stop at red lights. We hold the door, and we alert a stranger who accidentally dropped their keys. I believe most are considerate and kind. And most of us are kind, too. But because we do some things kind, doesn’t imply everything we do is kind. Our small acts of kindness support a belief of inner goodness. But this doesn’t mean we can’t occasionally be selfish and rotten.
We believe we are kind and find ample evidence to prove it, obscuring detrimental acts of unkindness that could be eliminated, instead of mindful acceptance and then change, we simply justify the nasty behavior, dispose of any contrary evidence; we then can see our unkind act not as unkind but justified and necessary.
The absent workaholic excuses neglecting the children because she’s working for their futures. The abuser blames a violent fit of rage on loving too much. We excuse the rude comment as a necessary stern correction. We cast nasty behaviors in a positive light by falsely attributing goodness to the evil, obscuring behaviors in need of change. Our cognitive interpretation game eases cognitive dissonance that accompanies conflict between ideal visions of ourselves and the reality of our behaviors.
Robert Trivers, a Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, wrote, “so powerful is our tendency to rationalize that negative evidence is often immediately greeted with criticism, distortion, and dismissal so that not much dissonance need be suffered, nor change of opinion required” (2011, Kindle location 2,565).
By recognizing immature ego-defending tendencies, we can skeptically evaluate behaviors that don’t coincide with the desired self. With focused attention, we discover behaviors that distract for our desired destination. Actions once obscured, now appear obvious. We can no longer dispose of the evidence.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
We’ll never see reality perfectly clear through unfiltered lenses (biases always intrude); but we can, however, remove some of the distortions. By removing distortions, we can artfully confront the ugly behaviors. Skeptically challenging old protecting beliefs. So, we aren’t exactly who we thought we were, but with a little effort, we eventually become closer to that kind, compassionate, great driver and lover we previously thought we were.
Trivers, Robert (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1st edition.