A great American writer hands us an instrument to combat pernicious cognitive biases
Having spent nearly half my life living abroad, I have come to accept that my native country is small and not very significant. Sure, a few of its citizens have achieved scientific (Leo Baekeland), sporting (Eddy Merckx) or cultural (Hergé) renown, but most of the time it keeps out of the news. Not so in the past week, though. And it was not even the country as a whole, but two of its three regions (Wallonia and Brussels), which ensured Belgium made the news headlines by refusing to ratify the trade agreement between Canada and the European Union (CETA) that had been more than seven years in the making.
Events move fast, and as I am writing this the deal appears to have been rescued. But at the end of last week, my adoptive country was paying a lot more attention to Belgium than it normally does. The reason was obvious: one of the implications of the country’s voting in favour of the so-called Brexit is that the UK too will need to establish a new trade agreement with the EU. And what was striking is that, almost immediately, two diametrically opposed interpretations of the CETA trouble emerged.
The same event, two opposing meanings
Eurosceptic, pro-Brexit individuals gleefully pointed at the dysfunction within the EU: MPs Andrew Murrison and James Claverley saw in the fact that a region with barely 3.6 million people could block a trade agreement between a country ten times its size with a bloc 140 times its size plenty of evidence for the view that the UK is right to get out of the EU and the single market, pronto. Some Remainers, on the other hand, saw the failing of the CETA talks as a stark warning of the disaster that awaits the UK the other side of Brexit, especially if it also means leaving the single market. Negotiating a bespoke trade agreement with the EU would be long and tedious – with awful trading conditions until it is eventually struck.
Of course, since the referendum, both camps have been wheeling out selective snippets of economic news that was grist to their mill, but generally what is good news for one clan is bad news for the other. But the stalled CETA deal, in contrast, served both sides simultaneously, in opposing ways.
Only last week I wrote about a fundamental choice we are faced with. On the one hand there is the appeal of certainty, which paints the world in comforting black and white, a simple picture that clearly distinguishes good from bad, and right from wrong. On the other hand there is the fascination of wisdom, which offers us a rich, nuanced world view, but with complexity and contradictions that can make us feel uncomfortable. The reactions to the CETA situation either side of the Brexit divide almost seem like they were intended to illustrate the attraction of the first possibility.
The unassailable power of conviction
When we are convinced of something, we are even more than otherwise lured by confirmation bias and its close relative, termed “What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) by Daniel Kahneman. Anything that might erode or undermine our belief is uncomfortable, and we would naturally be crazy to deliberately go looking for evidence that goes against what we think is right. So we only look at what confirms our ideas, and the same event can then appear very different, depending on what our prior beliefs are. If we are strongly in favour of leaving the EU, then anything that backs this – for example the dysfunction of a tiny region scuppering a very important trade agreement – makes what we believe even truer than it already was. If, on the other hand, we believe Brexit will be terribly messy and fail to bring economic benefits, then the proceedings of CETA provide us with the perfect argument against embarking on complex, lengthy negotiations that might quite likely end up offering a poor deal anyway. Whatever our position, as soon as we’ve found what serves our cause we’re happy with what we see, and we act as if that is all there is.
There are several plausible explanations for this tendency, from escalation of commitment (we have invested so much intellectual capital already in a particular view, that we are loath to put it at risk of competing views) to social norms and tribalism (we have chosen to belong to a group that is defined by a particular view, and our continued membership relies on conforming to and reinforcing that view).
But perhaps it is also related with how we often have to make decisions. Despite the world being complex and nuanced, many of our decisions ultimately end up being discrete or even binary: it’s this or that – black or white. So why not pick the choice that feels right or obvious right at the start, look for evidence in support and when we’ve found enough, go for it? There is something to be said for this: the transaction cost of this approach – in practice, the time it takes to evaluate consequences and weigh up options – is certainly low. And if the result is not likely to be disastrous, maybe it is actually a pretty good way of making decisions?
If we didn’t actually rely on such shortcuts, we’d go completely bonkers: imagine what a convoluted and lengthy process choosing clothes in the morning and deciding what to have for breakfast would be. But we’re not looking for the right answer – we’re just looking for one that is good enough. A white top or a blue top? Who cares, as long as we’re not leaving home for an important business meeting in a Bert and Ernie T-shirt.
But what if it does matter? A powerful blogpost by Dave Trott this week shows how easily people stick to the simple heuristic of going straight for the obvious and staying there – even where medical examinations are concerned. If your doctor is convinced that what she hears in your lungs is obviously a sign of something highly suspicious, requiring numerous, expensive and painful diagnostic interventions, she is not going to look for other explanations, and she may well fail to establish that all it is, is a side effect of using glaucoma drops that is easily remedied. And that is what we all tend to do: once we are convinced that the obvious answer is the right answer, we stop looking elsewhere. Dave Trott cites Edward de Bono: “A conclusion is just a place where you stopped thinking.”
Two opposing ideas
And that also provides an explanation for the reactions to the CETA hiccup. If you are already know what the right answer is, the corresponding set of blinkers ensures that you see the resistance of the Walloon and Brussels governments as supporting your case: the UK should leave all that is associated with the EU (including the single market) pronto, or she should maintain as much as possible the current trade relations with the EU after leaving.
But for issues like this, which are not quite comparable to what to wear or what to have for breakfast, maybe it is worth questioning that initial conviction. That would mean not just looking for facts that support it, but also for evidence that goes against it. And that implies holding in your mind two thoughts simultaneously: the thought that the CETA agreement’s troubles support your view, and the thought that they undermine it and support the opposing view. If you are ready and willing to do that, then you can really weigh up the pros and cons, and grasp the intricacies and consequences both views.
My friend Paul Craven reminded me of an observation made in 1936 by the great American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Perhaps we should consider that his legacy, in addition to his splendid literary work, includes the description of a perfect tool to combat the pernicious biases that keeps us from making wise decisions.
Practising holding two opposing ideas in mind at the same time might be difficult and uncomfortable, but it would indeed be an excellent way of keeping confirmation bias and the WYSIATI fallacy at bay.