On the Most Powerful Cognitive Bias in the World
It was the morning of Halloween when I got her text. “What are you doing tonight?” It was Michelle (not her real name), a woman I had been dating off and on for a few months in NYC. “Nothing. What’s up?” I responded. She replied, “I wanted to try out the Ouija board. Have you ever done it?”
For the uninitiated, the Ouija board (pronounced ‘wee-gee’) is an infamous American game where people (typically teenagers) “talk” with the spiritual world using the board as a medium to communicate. This communication occurs through the planchette, a small plastic wedge that is controlled by the players and the “spirit” to facilitate messages.
I responded. “I’ve never done Ouija before, but we could if you want.” Of course I didn’t believe in any of this, but if Michelle wanted to come over again, why not?
Michelle showed up later that night, Oujia board in hand. “We need to turn off our cell phones and all of the lights,” she said. I obliged. “Do you have a candle?” she asked. “No, but I do have a flashlight.”
Picture it. Darkness. My studio apartment. A single flashlight facing upward. We are sitting across a table from each other. Our hands are on the planchette. She says, “Do you want to talk? Or should I?” I respond, “I have no idea what this is about.” “Okay, I’ll talk,” she said. The seance had begun.
“Spirit, are you there?”
No answer. One minute passes. She asks again. Nothing. Two minutes. Stillness. Silence. Then I say, “Michelle, I don’t think this is gonna work.” She says to give it more time. Three minutes. Four minutes. She asks again and again. Still no answers. I say again, “Maybe it is because we don’t have the candle.” Then she says, “But it’s Halloween. This is the night where it is most likely to happen.” She asks again. Five minutes. Still nothing.
At this point I am wondering how this is going to end. In my distracted state I accidentally moved the planchette. A slight movement. Almost unnoticeable. Michelle cried out, “Oh my God! It moved.”
I immediately respond, “Oh sorry, that was me. It was an accident.” She sternly replied, “No. I saw you. You didn’t move.” I re-insisted. She doubled down. I shot a glance at her in the dim light and realized what was going on. Michelle didn’t want the truth. She wanted to believe in the spirit. I played along.
Suddenly, the “spirit” came alive and started answering questions. “What’s my name?” Michelle asked. The planchette moved to “M-I-C”. “What’s my age?” she asked. “2-5” it responded. We did this for 10 minutes or so before ending it.
After I boxed up the game Michelle was visibly freaked out. I asked if she was okay and she said she just wanted to go home. No Netflix. No chill. Happy Halloween Nicholas.
The next day Michelle posted about her experience with the “spirit” on her Instagram story (multiple pages, all text). I almost felt bad, but then I remembered the most unbelievable part about the prior night. At some point during the game, I stopped moving the planchette altogether, but Michelle kept moving it. I could see her moving it, but her own belief in the supernatural wouldn’t allow her to realize it.
I don’t tell this story to make fun of Michelle. I tell it because we are all a little like Michelle, just not with ghosts/spirits. Michelle cannot be convinced that the supernatural don’t exist, just like you and I cannot be convinced to change some of our deepest convictions. Of course you don’t want to believe this is true, which strengthens my point.
This is why confirmation bias is the most powerful bias in the world. Because you are the biggest influence to your own beliefs. You decide what ideas you let in and you decide what ideas you let stay inside your mind. You are the gatekeeper. Beware the gatekeeper.
I know you have probably read lots of articles on confirmation bias (I already wrote one here), but you may not have realized just how pervasive this bias is.
Consider the case of the naval surgeon James Lind. He ran an experiment in 1747 where he divided 12 sailors with scurvy into 6 different groups. Each group was given an elixir with different ingredients. Five of the groups showed no improvement, in their condition, but the group given oranges and lemons made a complete recovery. Did Lind alter his thinking? No. Bill Bryson writes in At Home: A Short History of Private Life:
Amazingly, Lind decided to ignore the significance of the result and doggedly stuck with his personal belief that scurvy was caused by incompletely digested food building up toxins within the body.
Or how about the English social reformer Edwin Chadwick? He was under the impression that cholera and other diseases were caused by bad odors and noxious air. After a German doctor named Robert Koch conclusively demonstrated that bacteria caused cholera in 1876, Chadwick refused to change his beliefs. Bill Bryson notes that Chadwick, “…continued throughout his life to suggest ways of odor elimination as the most effective method for keeping people healthy.”
But, this goes beyond historical anecdotes. Daniel Crosby, in The Behavioral Investor, highlighted how people “spend 36% more time reading an essay if it aligns with their opinions.” You probably do this and don’t even realize it. And guess what? Being smarter or being older doesn’t make you any better at fighting this bias.
My point in all of this is to remind you of the power you hold as your own mental gatekeeper. Confirmation bias is the most dangerous cognitive bias in the world and nothing will convince me otherwise. If that doesn’t tell you something, then I don’t know what will haha. So, beware, beware, beware the gatekeeper.
Thank you for reading!
This is post 107. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data