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The Narrative Fallacy, Confirmation Bias, and being a Rebel

Cognitive Biases

The Narrative Fallacy, Confirmation Bias, and being a Rebel 1
Gambling with confirmation bias and narrative fallacy

For his fundamental rule runs thus : “I want to see nothing that contradicts the usual opinion concerning things ! Am I created for the purpose of discovering new truths ? There are already too many of the old ones.”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science 

Falling for the narrative fallacy and confirmation bias traps are some of the most common cognitive illusions that plague us. Far too often, we overvalue standing out from the crowd, not because it matches our beliefs, but because we fear conformity. We prefer to rebel – to turn our backs against the norms, and embrace conventional rebellion.

Conventional Rebellion

When you confuse real, substantive individuality with the illusion of individuality – you get conventional (or timid) rebellion. It’s when you define yourself according to the most socially acceptable form of rebellion. In adolescence and in early adulthood, it’s tempting to be non-conformist or contrarian – to stand out from the crowd and scorn people who follow the status quo. 

Most people grow out of this phase, but some people don’t. They see value in being a rebel for its own sake. And sometimes, they’ll make radical life choices to defy social expectations. 

People who refuse to conform don’t run the world of business – It is run by people who follow the rules judiciously. The contrarians and original thinkers who end up being successful didn’t become successful because they didn’t follow the rules, they did so because they followed the rules really well. They leveraged passion, hard work, consistency, and critical thinking to figure out ways to maneuver into their industry. The right timing was just as pertinent. And yet serious-minded, hard-working people often fail due to disadvantageous circumstances. 

When people are young, they think it’s cool that they aren’t taking any precautions or mitigating their risks. But jumping into the unknown is not cool and different. Too many people jump into the unknown only to burn their fingers. Others might not make the jump, but they blame themselves for being hesitant. They, too, want to be part of the “cool” tribe and venture out on their own. But younger individuals often have a very poor sense of their individual identity, still struggling to grow out of the social persona they’ve constructed for themselves. 

A clever exchange I once saw on a House episode a number of years ago comes to mind.

Dr. Roger Spain (First Applicant): [to House when he refuses to hire him] Wow! I thought you’d be the last person to have a problem with nonconformity.

Dr. Gregory House: Nonconformity. Right. I can’t remember the last time saw a twenty-something kid with a tattoo of an Asian letter on his wrist. You are one wicked free thinker! You want to be a rebel? Stop being cool. Wear a pocket protector like he does, and get a haircut like the Asian kids that don’t leave the library for 24 hour stretches. They’re the ones who don’t care what you think.

[pauses]

Dr. Gregory House: Sayonara!

The Narrative fallacy

“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Some people decide to become day traders, gamblers, or entrepreneurs because of the narrative fallacy.

A day trader points to rare examples of other day traders who managed to make a living from their profession and write about their success as evidence that they too can be successful. They selectively point out a number of factors that create an inaccurate narrative in their minds of what’s required to be successful and discount the hidden factors that they aren’t aware of, such as luck, timing, overconfidence, and personal ignorance. 

Similarly, an entrepreneur makes the same mistake by assuming that certain entrepreneurial traits among his idols were keys to their success, and then tries to instill those traits in himself, believing that doing so would be sufficient to succeed at their own business. But, of course, successful entrepreneurs are highly variable in their characteristics, and even if many of them credit their success to commonly voiced explanations. The truth is very few people know why they became successful and will often settle for conventional explanations to avoid sounding silly. 

Some people are trend-whisperers. They claim to have a secret connection with market forces and can predict which industry trend is going to be the next big thing. Whether it’s clean energy, e-commerce or block-chain technology, this type is often armed with superficial knowledge about the subject he is fascinated with, but will swear that it’s going to take over the world. 

A gambler associates false patterns to the serendipitous appearance of random numbers on a roulette wheel. He convinces himself that he’s found a mysterious pattern that only he can predict. He has convinced himself that he has gamed the system. 

I rarely meet people who admit to not knowing the answer to difficult questions. But when I do, I know I can trust them. The people who understand the limits of their knowledge, and wear their ignorance proudly are not interested in cajoling you or putting on a show – they are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

Avoid people who have all the answers. They’re either nefariously trying to fool everyone around them, fool you, fool themselves, or likely, all three.

Confirmation Bias

“People Generally See What They Look For And Hear What They Listen For”

To Kill a Mockingbird

You compound the danger when you restrict your information diet to things that confirm your presuppositions.

It’s hard to  to accept that our beliefs can be inconsistent with reality. But it shouldn’t be surprising, we simply know too little – we are making quick judgments based on minimal information. This will inevitably result in many poorly conceived positions.

In addition, we do not have enough time to carefully think about everything we believe in, it is necessary to delegate our opinions about some things to experts –  that is the collateral damage that results from specialization.

While cognitive dissonance is a common reality among people –  people do hold inconsistent viewpoints, but as long as they are not aware of the self-contradictory nature of their beliefs, it is tolerated. But when points of view that contradict your own are perceived as antagonistic and threatening to your faith in your own sense making capabilities, especially if you have invested considerable time and energy in cultivating these viewpoints, you will invariably dismiss them.

That is because you have a natural aversion to believing that you are prone to error. If you are wrong about one thing, it is not a stretch to believe that you are probably wrong about many things.

Further, you know that time and intelligence limit your access to sufficient knowledge to buttress all of your viewpoints, thus you can safely conclude that other people also suffer from the same limitations – that they are not omniscient. Thus, even if someone made a very good argument, you can still justifiably conclude that he is not sufficiently aware of the other side of the argument, or that his theory is lacking in logic in some important dimension. In this way, you manage to forestall the dissolution of your ego. 

Ultimately, you succeed in rejecting feelings of confusion and insecurity. Instead you will fall for the confirmation bias trap: you will only consume information that confirms your worldview, you will block out everything else. 

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The temptation to reduce reality to a simplistic chain of cause and events is understandable, but it is precisely this unwillingness, this fear from entertaining conflicting viewpoints in the short-term, that make you less informed. You become blind to the other side of the argument, because you have suppressed your urge to explore it. 

Consider a typical Tea Party supporter who somehow squares an ardent faith in Jesus Christ with a firm objection to government welfare policies and a staunch support for the National Rifle Association. Wasn’t Jesus a bit more keen on helping the poor than on arming yourself to the teeth? It might seem incompatible, but the human brain has a lot of drawers and compartments, and some neurons just don’t talk to one another. Similarly, you can find plenty of Bernie Sanders supporters who have a vague belief in some future revolution, while also believing in the importance of investing your money wisely. They can easily switch from discussing the unjust distribution of wealth in the world to discussing the performance of their Wall Street investments.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari

It was once advantageous to rely on group think. Indeed, we dominated the world by relying on each other for thinking. We didn’t have to be knowledgeable about every subject, but only an expert in a limited number of domains. While this has worked in the past, it may not work for us today. The world is becoming more complex and people are unaware of their own ignorance of the complexity that surrounds them.

CThe world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realize just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. Consequently some who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless propose policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate these countries on a map.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari

There’s an experiment that asks you to pay attention to how many times the ball is passed around. Remarkably, someone in a bear costume appears in the middle of the screen, and yet few people notice.  That’s a testament to how narrow our field of vision is, how narrow our focus is.

Think of the content you expose yourself to every day and the people you choose to spend time with. How narrow a slice of reality do they constitute? And yet how many people seem so adamant and relentless in their convictions about the world?

The only remedy would be to limit the effect of confirmation bias in your life is to try to weigh both arguments as fairly as possible. It might slow you down to a standstill, but not moving at all is better than flying in the wrong direction. There are many cognitive fallacies to keep in mind. These are just some of them. But surely, the worst one of all is the one that you’re unaware of. 

People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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