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Why People do Not Agree: Attentional and Cognitive Bias

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

One of the most exasperating things I run into is when I pass people who are smoking. I find it incredible that, in the light of vast scientific and medical evidence that smoking causes cancer, people will continue to smoke as though it is the most harmless activity in the world. Aside from the fact that I do not wish to inhale secondary smoke, I find it a wonder that all of that empirical evidence can be dismissed.

In the same way, I find it incredible that some people continue to insist that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, was not born in the U.S. and, therefore, should not be president. Here too, what is exasperating is that those who insist in this belief do so in light of the President having presented his birth certificate. In fact, when the certificate was presented, some of these same people insisted that it was not an original and was invalid.

These are two matters that people continue to argue about despite the presence of objective evidence that should, in every way, settle the questions forever. How can this happen?

It happens because of a process that is due to faulty reasoning and incorrect conclusions. What is fault in this process is what are referred to as attentional and cognitive biases. In effect, cognitive and attentional bias occur when people do not see all the alternatives or all of the information and possibilities that are present. For example, there are people who insist that they do not believe smoking is harmful because they have a relative who smoked everyday and died at the age of ninety. This example is what is referred to as an “outlier.”

“Outlier” is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. For example, if there is a day during the month of August when the temperature fell below freezing, we would refer to that as an outlier. It is not within normal experience. Therefore, while there may have been a few people who were heavy smokers and lived long lives, they would be what are referred to as outliers. Making health and life choices based on factors that are outside the norm is dangerous to one’s health and wellbeing. Making a judgement on the basis of an outlier is an example of cognitive bias. In other words, evidence is rejected or overlooked based on what someone happens to believe. That is cognitive bias because, in this type of example, we look for evidence that supports what we believe.

There is no better example of cognitive bias than what happens in the debate over gun control in the United States. Those who reject gun control insist that they need guns either to protect themselves from criminals, go hunting or do both. What they fail to see is the overwhelming proof that most gun deaths result from family members shooting one another. The greatest danger is not from criminals from outside the family but from relatives living under the same roof. I find this equally exasperating as people smoking but remind myself that this way of thinking results from cognitive bias.

Basically, this is why it is not worth risking friendships or other relationships over conflicting opinions about politics or religion. It is far more useful for people to listen to what others are saying rather than trying to prove them wrong. What with cognitive and attentional bias,  people will only think and see what they expect to.

By the way, try to avoid making judgments based on a sample of one since that example could be an outlier.

What are your comments and questions?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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