Darwin’s Golden Rule

One of the oddities of the information age is that it hasn’t really led to an enlightenment of knowledge. In many ways, the firehose of information has made some people less informed.

There are people who believe the earth is flat, the moon landing was a hoax, and Australia doesn’t exist.

But beyond the conspiracy theories for many, the internet has turned into an echo chamber that only enhances people’s confirmation bias.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising when you consider how our brains process arguments and opinions.

Daniel Kahneman has discussed how ideas become part of who we are and why it’s so difficult to change our opinions:

Ideas become part of who we are. People get invested in their ideas, especially if they get invested publicly and identify with their ideas. So there are many forces against changing your mind. Flip-flopping is a bad word to people. It shouldn’t be. Within sciences, people who give up on an idea and change their mind get good points. It’s a rare quality of a good scientist, but it’s an esteemed one.

There was a study performed in the 1980s that exposed a group of people with strongly held positions on social issues to four different arguments on the topic, two pro and two con. For each side of the aisle, there was one argument that was very plausible and another that was wildly implausible.

Researchers found people tended to remember the plausible arguments that supported their views and the implausible arguments that went against their views, forsaking the other side.

So people latch onto arguments that support what they already believe and ignore even plausible evidence to the contrary. Plus, we tend to seek out implausible arguments only when they strengthen our own opinions.

This is why an abundance of knowledge doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds. There is so much data, analysis, opinions, and information available that you can spin almost any argument in your favor if you so choose.

Robert Wright explains the brain’s role in all of this in his book The Moral Animal:

The reason the genetic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done.

The human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is right – and thus a machine for convincing its owner of the same thing. The brain is like a good lawyer: given any set of interests to defend, it sets about convincing the world of their moral and logical worth, regardless of whether they have in fact any of either. Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than virtue.

Time and again – whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which – we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn’t warranted.

Wright’s book looks at human nature through the lens of evolution and Charles Darwin. Darwin’s study of human nature forced him to take a hard look in the mirror to fight his own confirmation bias.

He said in his autobiography he had a golden rule when he came across ideas that were inconsistent with his theories. Darwin would immediately write down those observations that were in conflict with his work to be able to see the other side in case he was wrong.

Darwin said, “For I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than the favourable ones.”

Many groups of people these days are more concerned with winning than being right.

It’s not easy because your brain will naturally fight news and opinions you don’t agree with but having an open mind doesn’t cost you anything.

The Moral Animal

Further Reading:
The Value of I Don’t Know