The Power of Bias

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Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta recently devised an interesting experiment to test the reasoning, or the lack thereof, of political partisans.

Prior to the 2004 American presidential election, a group of Kerry supporters and a group of Bush supporters were each given six statements by their candidate. Next they were given pieces of information that documented a blatant contradiction between their candidate’s first statement and his subsequent words or deeds. At that point, the subjects were asked to consider the apparent discrepancy between their candidate’s initial statement and the second statement or behavior and to rate the degree of contradiction involved. Finally, they were given a third statement that might reconcile the first and second piece of information, and asked to reconsider the degree of contradiction involved.

While being presented with these tasks, the subjects’ brains were being monitored by magnetic resonance to determine what areas of the brain were most active. The investigators found that the presentation of the information raising questions about the honesty or consistency of the subject’s favored candidate triggered no increased activity in the brain in areas normally associated with reasoning. Instead a network of emotional circuits lit up.

When the third statement offering a possible reconciliation of the first two was presented, the brain circuits that regulate negative emotions such as sadness and disgust shut down, while those involved in behavior reward were activated, in a manner comparable to that seen in drug addicts after receiving a dose.

Drew Westen, chairman of the clinical psychology department at Emory, described the findings: “It appears that the partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it.”

Intelligence apparently had no impact on the subjects’ responses. Stupid Bush supporters and intelligent Kerry supporters (just kidding) reacted in an identical fashion. As Westen summarized the results, “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally based judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts.’”

These findings, while admittedly only preliminary, are highly suggestive. For one thing, they provide experimental confirmation of a point emphasized by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler already in the late 1920s, as he confronted the cult of science of his time. Rabbi Dessler taught his students to beware that the conclusions of supposedly objective scientists are often heavily tainted by their prior biases.

Suppose, for instance, a scientist writes that the world about us is the product of purely random events reflecting no guiding purpose, and claims that modern science supports his claim. Even if we grant that this person possesses a keen intellect and is well-educated, writes Rabbi Dessler, we must recognize that his moral character is likely no more than average, and that he has never seriously tackled his own moral failings. When arguing a point upon which depends “whether he will be obliged to struggle constantly with his baser desires . . . or whether he will live with no restraints on those desires other than those he deigns to place on them,” says Rabbi Dessler, no one can “seriously believe that he will arrive at a true conclusion merely by the exercise of his intellectual powers.”

Indeed the Emory findings may help explain a phenomenon that I have long noticed: the curious immunity of many intellectuals to empirical reality.

Intellectuals love theories. They become emotionally invested in those theories, and will defend them long after the contradictions have mounted, as Thomas Kuhn long ago pointed out in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They would rather modify the theory to explain why the emperor appears naked than admit that he has no clothes. Freudianism, for instance, held sway over Western intellectuals for nearly a century, despite the lack of empirical support for either the theory or its efficacy as a therapeutic tool.

The Emory study also helps me better understand the awe I often feel in the presence of those who have had the fortitude to re-examine the emotional core and ask whether it is true – e.g., geirei tzedek, ba’alei teshuva, and even those neo-conservatives whom Irving Kristol famously described as “liberals mugged by reality.” We should feel awe because, as the Emory study makes clear, the power of bias is very strong and receives powerful emotional reinforcement from our brains.

Wafa Sultan, is an Arabic-speaking psychologist, now living in the United States, who had the courage to say openly on Al Jazeera, “The Jews have come through the tragedy [of the Holocaust], and forced the world to respect them with their knowledge, not their terror, with their work, not their crying or yelling. . . . We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church.” Apart from the pure physical bravery involved (Sultan and her family are now in hiding), it is truly wondrous to contemplate someone who has freed herself from the prejudices of the Moslem society in which she was born to such extent.

Finally, the Emory experiment provided me with a renewed appreciation of the “milchemes HaTorah” described by the Gemara in Kiddushin. The chavrusah (study partner) system of learning forces us to subject that which is dear to us – our chiddushim (novellae) – to continual scrutiny. Every time we offer a solution to a particular project, we find sitting across from us a study partner who has no ego invested in our chiddush and will do everything he can to refute it, if he can.

Those who are raised in this system of learning are constantly challenged to overcome the natural bias in favor of our own intellectual progeny, and to pursue truth instead. The training is far from fool-proof. As Rabbi Dessler noted, it can only work in conjunction with rigorous work on our characters as well. But work it does.

Every time a gadol b’Torah [great Torah scholar] stops a shiur [class] in the middle, in response to a student’s question, even though he could have easily found numerous plausible ways to save his chiddush, we are witnessing a rare feat of elevating reason over emotion. Just how rare, Dr. Westen has shown us.

Originally published in Mishpacha, March 22, 2006

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8 Responses

  1. 1.5 opinions says:

    I don’t understand why such results couldn’t be used to directly criticize those who hold closely to religious beliefs. For that matter, shouldn’t the same data be used to congratulate those who, having “seen the light,” throw off the yoke of Torah despite their strong religious upbringing? Sure, the folks at Emory have shown that our preconceptions and beliefs strongly bias our ability to reason. It’s a knife that cuts both ways though. How do those of us who are comfortable in our orthodox belief and lifestyle reassure ourselves, in light of such a result, that we are not constantly deluding ourselves? I don’t believe that I am deluded. But the Emory study must make us insist on intellectual rigor in our belief, no?

  2. tzura says:

    I know I’m going off on a bit of a tangent, but you bring the case of Freudianism as an example of the immunity that many intellectuals have to empirical reality? I would say that the history of Freud’s theories argue the opposite.

    Here’s an alternative version of Freud’s downfall:
    The popularity of Freud has been been going downhill for decades. Even when I took AP Psychology over a decade ago, Freud was already taught as a historical figure and simply as one among many who made contributions to the field. I probably heard more about Frued in the one Peace and Conflict Studies class I took than all of the Neuroscience courses I took in college and grad school.

    The drop in popularity of Freudianism occurred in large part because of its failure to catch on among experimental and clinical psychologists. There’s a reason why most schools of psychotherapy are small operations, as opposed to the large university departments of psychology. Freud has generally been more popular with the general public, simply because it told a good story. Among psychologists, for every guy who enthusiastically incorporated Freud’s ideas, there were many who were only too happy to tear his theories down. Freud’s staying power among “the intellectuals” was ultimately weak precisely because of the lack of empirical support. In the end, it was the continued skepticism of many in the psychology community towards Freud’s theories that percolated into his reduced influence overall.

  3. Seth Gordon says:

    The Emory study also helps me better understand the awe I often feel in the presence of those who have had the fortitude to re-examine the emotional core and ask whether it is true – e.g., geirei tzedek, ba’alei teshuva, and even those neo-conservatives whom Irving Kristol famously described as “liberals mugged by reality.”

    …not to mention Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians who now oppose President Bush.

    I agree that it’s great when people make the effort to challenge their own deeply-held beliefs and battle their own emotions for the sake of the truth. But I would add one caveat: sometimes a person changes the direction of a powerful and passionate bias without changing the strength of that bias. As Orwell observed in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism”:

    A country or other unit which has been worshipped for years may suddenly become detestable, and some other object of affection may take its place with almost no interval…. The bigoted Communist [i.e., Stalinist] who changes in a space of weeks, or even days, into an equally bigoted Trotskyist is a common spectacle. In continental Europe Fascist movements were largely recruited from among Communists, and the opposite process may well happen within the next few years. What remains constant in the nationalist is his state of mind: the object of his feelings is changeable, and may be imaginary.

  4. joel rich says:

    IIRC a similar story is told about R’ Chaim’s probeh in Brisk, except that he himself realized that there was a hole in his svara and just stopped the drasha en medias res.
    KT

  5. Bob Miller says:

    A good analysis by Jonathan. I remember reading about the Greek philosophical belief that planets should travel in circles (the perfect shape) around the earth. People like the astronomer Ptolemy noticed that the actual orbits were not circular, so they salvaged the general idea of circular motion by building smaller circles (epicycles) onto the larger circles so that the combination described the observed motion. Later observers (see references about Copernicus and Kepler) vastly simplified the math by using elliptical orbits around the sun. But if they had a powerful computer then to crunch data using multiple epicycles according to the old paradigm, they never would have seen any need to abandon the epicycles! This is to say that an old theory has inertia and has to become really inconvenient before people will want to abandon it, especially when there are emotional reasons not to change. The more committed a person is, the more he or she will tolerate this inconvenience.

    So far, I’ve been talking about science, but matters of Jewish faith aren’t quite the same. Commitment to Torah is a good thing. That is, we are called upon to accept and follow the Torah even when parts of it are very difficult for us to understand as individuals. Obviously, we need to study intensively to enhance our objective understanding of Torah, but in the meantime we can’t decide, based on our limited and biased individual knowledge, that some other take on reality makes more sense. We have to be humble enough to know that HaShem knows infinitely more than we do.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    It is well known that R Soloveitchik ZTL once stopped a shiur and crossed out with a large “X” all of his shiur on a certain day because a talmid had asked him a question based on a Rishon. The next day, the Rav ZTL returned with a smile , thanked the talmid for the question and then showed the shiur the correct text. The power of emes ( truth) and a clear sevara ( logical presentation)based upon clear thinking was always foremost in the eyes of the Rav ZTL. I have heard a similar story
    also in the name of R Shach ZTL.

  7. joel rich says:

    The Emory results imho fall into the category of dog bites man and while I like your description of milchamta shel Torah I MHO it is a bit idealized. There are many shitot (a la R’ Chaim’s approach to look for sweeping theoretical constructs that underly the data points of the gemara (and selected rishonim)) that fit 90% of the data points and those that hold that conceptual approach find reasons to discount the other 10%. I’m not sure the researchers at Emory would see this as much different from their research results. The discussion in a previous post concerning the charedi participation in the State vs. the WZO may be an example of this as well. Perhaps a more important difference is that we understand the eternal nature of the milchama. Halevai we all understand that the key is not to be be egocentric but to be HKB”Hcentric (what does HKB”H want me to do) -which is what Avi Mori Vrabi ZLL”HH taught me was the definition of anivut (humility).
    KT

  8. JewishAtheist says:

    You claim that those raised to learn with a chavrusa are trained to constantly confront their biases. However, this is only the case in a narrow range of argumentation. Chavrusas rarely or never debate the fundamental questions of faith as they must avoid kefirah.

    Science, on the other hand, is a system whose sole purpose is to counteract our natural biases. Hypotheses must be testable and experiments must be repeatable. Many people brought up in batei midrash belief in magical red strings and a 6,000 year old Earth. While “intellectuals” may have believed in Freudianism (or communism, I will add) science has continued to close in on the truth, regardless of bias. Where scientists have been wrong in the past, the process has corrected them. Where Rabbis have been wrong in the past, however, they are not corrected but rather defended.

    It’s funny that you offer Dr. Sultan as someone free from the prejudices of her society. As an atheist, I’m sure she would disagree with you on a few issues as well. :-)