What Are They Thinking?!

The cognitive bias codex from wikipedia; if you want to print it out so it’s legible and useful, print the original over four letter-sized pages and paste them together (my printout is taped, tellingly perhaps, over my rarely-used TV). The model was developed by John Manoogian III and refined by Buster Benson; the SVG version includes active links by TillmanR to the wikipedia articles explaining each bias.

A lot of ‘leftie’ writers have been expressing dismay lately not only about what right-wingers are saying and doing, but about what a large proportion of other lefties have been saying. And the concern is not so much about what they’re saying as about how they could possibly have come to believe what they’re saying. In other words, What were they thinking?

I’m increasingly persuaded that much of what we all say and do is simply conditioned behaviour. Our biological ‘wiring’, combined with (because we are social creatures) our cultural conditioning, compels us to believe certain things, and to act accordingly.

Our cultural conditioning — what we believe because of what others in our circles of trust and affinity say or do — often falls afoul of cognitive biases, such as the 180 biases depicted above.

If we really want to understand the prevailing behaviour of any group, particularly one we thought shared our worldview, it helps to try to understand how that cultural conditioning, with its inherent cognitive biases, works. So here is a little thought experiment to explore that.

The issue I am trying to understand is: How can bright, informed people support the continuation and escalation of the Ukraine War, believe that someone other than the Biden administration authorized and carried out the Nord Stream pipeline bombings, believe that China plans to take over the world militarily, and believe that the public health response to CoVid-19 was largely an overreaction or an excuse to curtail, surveil, and control individual citizens?

I want to explore the conditioning process and understand how we came to this point. I am not interested in laying blame for it happening, since that gets us nowhere, and I don’t believe there is anything anyone can do to change most people’s beliefs, unless they are already inclined to change them themselves. What are the cognitive biases that have given rise to what, to me, are frightening misunderstandings? (Of course, my beliefs are the product of my conditioning as well, which is clearly very different from that of those who hold the above beliefs; and I am also subject to cognitive biases.)

So here’s a table I came up with, wading through all 180 biases in the above codex, and focusing on the 32 groups of biases that seem to directly affect our beliefs, to try to make sense of it all:

Bias Description: The human tendency to: Examples
Confirmation / Belief / Backfire effect believe only facts and accept only arguments that conform to our existing beliefs “All my life I’ve been told Russia and China are evil, authoritarian, repressive regimes that seek world domination. Navalny, Xinjiang, corrupt oligarchs, lab leak, etc. Your protestations just make me believe it even more.”
Attentional, Illusory Truth, Mere-Exposure believe and remember things that capture more of our attention, or that we hear repeatedly, or that are familiar to us “All the media I read are saying the same thing; they can’t all be wrong.”
Self-reference believe things only when we can relate them to our own personal story “It can’t be that bad. No one would tolerate that.” 
 Naive realism believe we are more objective and rational than most people   “That just doesn’t ring true. I’m not an idiot, and the people who buy that can’t be thinking straight.”
 Illusory correlation  see relationships where they don’t really exist  “Look at all these people that wore masks and got the vaccine and then got sicker than those who didn’t.”
 Attribution  attribute “our” failures to bad luck and our actions to good motives, but “their” failures to bad character and their actions to bad motives “We won’t talk peace because they’d just lie and take advantage; they won’t talk peace because they actually don’t want it.”
 Stereotyping / Prejudice  attribute characteristics to a whole swath of people  “If the Russians didn’t support Putin they’d overthrow him, and the Chinese are just docile mindless Communists; sanction them all.”
 Authority  believe wealthier, more powerful people more than others  “He’s got the best minds in the country advising him; they must know what they’re doing.”
Just-world  believe people eventually get what they deserve “We’re the good guys, so we’ll ultimately win the war for the hearts and minds of the world.”
 believe what most, or increasing numbers, of those around us believe  “I don’t know anyone who thinks the US would be foolish enough to blow up those pipelines.”
 Halo effect/ in-group favouritism ascribe exclusively positive qualities to “our” people and those we admire  “He saved us from Trump; in my eyes the guy can pretty much do no wrong.”
 Simplification/ Latching / Ambiguity  believe simple, easy explanations over the more complex, difficult, ambiguous, and uncertain   “He’s just insane and evil, that’s all; there was no ‘provocation’. Freedom and democracy must prevail.”
 Moral licensing  justify an act of bad behaviour from someone who we usually agree with  “He must have had a good reason.”
 Affinity  evaluate others who are “like us” more positively  “I just don’t trust ‘those people’.”
 Exceptionalism  consider our situation and motives to be unique  “We have God and right on our side. Others don’t, so they have to be bound by rules.”
 Dunning-Krueger/ Lake Wobegon believe we and our in-group re more competent than they are  “They’re just too stupid to figure it out. And our leaders wouldn’t have got where they are if they weren’t the best and the brightest.” 
 Transparency  think we know what others think and believe, and why they do so “That’s surely a false flag operation, intended to distract us from the truth.”
 Projection  think that past events accurately predict future events  “We’ve had nukes for decades. Thanks to MAD, they’ll never be used on any scale.”
 Optimism, Pessimism  think that some ideas are failure-proof and others could never work “If we/everyone just did this (eg bomb x), it would change everything; problem solved. Appeasement always fails.”
 Declinism / Nostalgia  believe things were better in the “old days” and are now getting worse  “They used to know their place, and there was never any problem. We need to restore x.”
 Outcome / Hindsight mistake correlation for causation, and mistake hindsight for insight  “That strategy worked then; it should work now. Anyone could have told you that wouldn’t work.”
 Risk compensation/ Moral hazard/ Learned helplessness/ Effort justification  misjudge the degree of risk in actions we take “Only old sick people need to wear masks. We’re all going to get it anyway. We’re so invested in this action, we need to double down, not back down.” 
 False consensus believe most (smart, informed) people agree with us  “It’s the only sensible position to take. You’d have to be insane to think otherwise. What were they thinking?!
 Third party  believe social/mass media influence others more than they influence us “Russiagate swung the election. Suppression of Hunter Biden’s wrongdoings swung the election. Propaganda has made us all mad.”
 Overconfidence  be surer of ourselves and our actions that the facts warrant  “I’m absolutely sure. We’ve never failed. We can’t fail. We won’t fail.”
 Identifiable victim / Power of story  buy into anecdotes about specific individuals but not stories or data about whole groups “Let me tell you about Ivan & Anna. It will change your mind about the whole war.” 
 Escalation of commitment / Sunk cost continue to pursue failed actions if we have invested a lot in them   “We can’t have spent $100B just for nothing. We need to authorize another $20B.”
 Status quo  perpetuate current behaviours and beliefs even if they’re irrational  “We have to continue NATO, even though its original purpose no longer applies.”
 Reactance  overreact to an action that makes us feel cornered or restricted  “These people are spreading misinformation. They need to be censored, banned, and jailed.”
Triviality / Bike-shedding focus on simpler, more controllable aspects of large complex problems “Pledge the fighter jets. Let them worry about how to staff them, use them, and maintain them.”
 Recency / Misinformation  give more credibility to, and recall, newer information, opinions and ideas, even if they’re false  “I don’t care what happened in 2014. Ancient history.”
 Negativity  react more and give more attention to negative stories and facts  “What does it matter if China traced, globally shared and sequenced CoVid-19 within a month of discovering it? Lab leak, lab leak!”

I’m sure someone could reword the third column of this table to try to make sense of my (to them) seemingly irrational beliefs about Ukraine, Nord Stream, China, and CoVid-19, by attributing them to my admitted cognitive biases. That would be an interesting exploration!

So what’s going on here? I think we’re all doing our best to make sense of the firehose of information and mis- and disinformation and propaganda out there. These cognitive biases, for the most part, aren’t character flaws — They’re ways of dealing with large amounts of information that evolved to make our ancestors more functional, and to enable them to act faster and to survive better. The fact that our overwhelmed (intellectually and emotionally) brains aren’t up to the task with today’s information overload is a tragedy, perhaps, but it’s not anyone’s fault.

The purpose of this exercise is to answer the question posted by the title of this exercise. Not the exclamation mark part, but the question mark part. While part of me seethes at the power of the post-WW2 US presidents and most of their senior ‘advisors’, and the destruction I believe they have wrought, I can kind of understand what has driven them to think, believe, and do what they have done. And I think it would be arrogant to presume that, if I were in their position, I would have done differently.

And that has to be enough. The world, as much as we wish it weren’t, is on autopilot, and no one is in control. The sum total of the cognitively-biased and variously-informed eight billion of us are going to do our best, and the outcome looks both inevitable and troublesome.

While it doesn’t and can’t change anything (at least that’s how I see it from my own cognitively-biased perspective), I have found it immensely comforting to at least be able to guess: What are they thinking? And now, each time I ask the question, I ask it without the exclamation mark.

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2 Responses to What Are They Thinking?!

  1. Bogwood says:

    Changing the language, meaning of words? That might fit under one of the categories. As retired MD I am less sanguine about the Covid response. It really did matter that it was not a “vaccine”, that it was not properly tested.
    The same with “marriage”. Don’t start. I have looked at this with a cousin for twenty years including same sex “marriages” in antiquity . The problem was already too much government in relationships, we did not need more. Defense. Federal Reserve. Democracy. Justice. Natural.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Apologies to readers of my blog via follow.it’s email/newsletter — it appears that follow.it is not rendering table cell borders in its emails. I’ve asked them about this. In the meantime, I hope you were able to find your way to this original version with the table cell borders, so that the table is intelligible!

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