Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Over a week has passed since the election, and it is clear that Joe Biden will become the next president on January 20, 2021. Yet President Trump refuses to concede. Why won’t Trump face reality? The answer is cognitive biases, which affect human thinking and decision-making.
Over the past few years, I have been studying cognitive biases, and now I can see them everywhere. (Here and here). Trump is not the only one suffering from cognitive biases; they affect all humans to some extent. They are pervasive in both our public and private lives. They affect how we see politics, do our jobs, and relate to others. They are not related to intelligence; very intelligent people suffer from brain biases. For example, very intelligent people believe the anti-vaccine myth, including famous and/or well-educated people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Alex Jones, Jenny McCarthy, Jessica Biel, and Rob Schneider.
In recent years, cognitive scientists have made enormous advances in understanding how the human brain works, including how humans make cognitive errors. Human brains evolved just like physical characteristics, such as opposable thumbs, did. Consequently, many human thinking processes developed for survival in primitive times. This process produced ways of thinking that are different from reality--cognitive biases.
Pulitzer-Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman has explained how cognitive biases arise in his book Thinking: Fact and Slow (2013). Humans use two types of thinking: System 1 is intuitive thinking, which operates automatically and controls the many details of our lives, such as walking, eating, and driving a car. System 2 controls tasks that require conscious decision-making and judgment, such as buying a house, running a business, deciding whether to launch missiles against the enemy. Cognitive biases occur when human thinking relies uncritically on System 1 (intuition). So, President Trump is relying on his intuitions, which are unreliable, rather than conscious judgement, which is much more likely to reach the right conclusion.
The most important bias affecting President Trump’s thinking is the “confirmation bias.” Under this bias, people focus only on information that supports their position. For example, a person mentions five studies that supports her position, but ignores the ten studies that don’t. People also ignore the faults with the studies that support their view.
President Trump thought that he was going to win this election. Some of the results on election night did show that the election was leaning towards him. However, as the night went on, and vote counting continued, the voting shifted in Biden’s favor. Because of the confirmation bias, which we all suffer from, he continued to think that he was going to win. He focused on the good news, rather than the bad. He even believed the unsubstantiated rumors of voter fraud and miraculously-appearing ballots.
His thinking was also affected by the Semmelweis effect, which causes individuals to reject evidence that contradicts a strongly-held idea. For example, Renaissance theologians rejected Galileo’s observations because they were inconsistent with their strongly-held notion that the universe revolved around the Earth. Trump, similarly rejected the evidence that he was losing the election. This evidence was fraudulent or the counting process was flawed.
Emotional reasoning also affected how Trump viewed the election’s outcome. Emotional reasoning is allowing emotions to affect one’s interpretation of reality. President Trump has a large emotional investment in the outcome of this election. Is it any wonder that he is letting his emotions affect how he views the results?
President Trump is also suffering from “the illusion of control.” Our brains often think that we have more control over a situation than we actually do. For example, a businessperson may think her company has submitted the winning bid, but she has no control over what the other bidders bid. A president may think that he has control over the outcome of an election, but, in reality, millions affect the result.
Finally, people often believe that they are acting properly or ethically when they are not. Behavioral ethicists call this ethical (or moral) blindness–unintentional unethical conduct. With moral blindness, people condemn unethical behavior, while being unable to see it in themselves. For example, a lawyer may think that lying to the court is repugnant, but he does so himself because he doesn’t realize he is lying or can rationalize his lying. In other words, a person thinks she can act objectively in a certain situation, but her emotions prevent her from acting objectively. In this case, President Trump may be suffering from moral blindness. He is thinking what he is doing is right, but he is unconsciously acting improperly.
How can we overcome cognitive biases? First, many researchers believe that just having knowledge of cognitive biases reduces their frequency. Second, slowing down one’s thinking can eliminate cognitive errors. In other words, with important decisions, you should check your System 1 intuitions with your System 2. Consider all evidence, even that which contradicts your ideas. Separate the objective from the subjective and avoid lazy thinking. Critically consider all reasonable alternatives. Add reflection and self-monitoring to your usual thinking processes. Create problem-solving strategies. Be able to explain your reasoning process. Consider the consequences of making a mistake. (What are the consequences of President Trump not timely admitting that he lost the election?) Third, don’t let emotions get in the way of your thinking. Evaluate whether your decision is based on emotion or System 2 thinking. Fourth, understand that you can’t control most situations. Finally, look for ethical blindness in your thinking.
I do not mean to single out President Trump for his failure to recognize his cognitive biases. They are a common impediment to human thinking and decision making. They have caused poor policy decisions, famines, wars, and countless human suffering. Our society needs to be aware of these problems in human thinking so that we can avoid many of the problems they cause.