Most really dangerous lies are at least partially true, and so is this one

I was told that the time to get out a hot stock in the market is when the cabbies starting offering that stock as an investment tip. No offense to cabbies intended but you know what I mean.

One of the popular topics on the blogosphere is Neuroscience. We introduced the principle of Neuroscience into our training programs in 2009, before the ‘cabbies’ started talking about it. There are valuable insights that can make a real difference to the learnings. (Given my formal, academic credentials, I feel justified in claiming some ability to know and understand the applicability of the research, and the shortcomings - unlike most pundits who read Cialdini and not much else.)

Then it became a bandwagon.

In 2013, I wrote a post Neuroscience is not everything it's cracked up to be. And in the same year, another one where I continued the theme, trying to debunk some myths. I pointed out for instance that the adherence to those ‘neuroscientific’ findings amounted to little more than pseudoscience.

For instance, most people would believe most (if not all) of these.

  • The “left-brain” is rational, the “right-brain” is creative
  • Dopamine is a pleasure chemical
  • Low serotonin causes depression
  • Video games, TV violence, porn or any other social spectre of the moment “rewires the brain”.
  • We have no control over our brain but we can control our mind.

I don’t want to get in an argument, with you, but it turns out that: NONE of those are true.

Raymond Tallis (scientist and philosopher) describes society’s current fetish as a ‘neuromania’ and worse, the ‘Darwininization of our understanding of humanity.’ we have all seen the brain pictures with the yellow and red blotches that are supposed to be so insightful. But consider the reality for a moment: neuronal activity lasts milliseconds. Blood flow, which is what the brain scans actually measure, lags between 2 and 10 seconds. Tallis also points out that event the simplest experiments have such low reproducibility that all conclusions initially drawn could be voided.

Science has a long history of constantly disproving itself. In fact, I find it peculiar how people can so much faith in science, when virtually everything that we take as scientific gospel today is the opposite of what we believed only a few years ago, and will be different yet again in a few years. (I think people confuse the relationship between science and technology, but that is another post.)

That is why I believe the current state of Neuroscience will be viewed as much contempt as we view Phrenology today.

Let’s take one such a popular topic: CONFIRMATION BIAS. Here is a recent article from a relatively reputable site. But it makes the same claims about confirmation bias, which are only partially true.

Most really dangerous lies are at least partially true.

The article describes confirmation bias as follows: It (confirmation bias) arises because people search for information that confirms their view of the world and ignore what doesn’t fit.

This is partially true.

But the full story is a bit more complicated.

Your initial ‘perception’ is formed for a reason. An incident, a lesson an insight triggered the belief. That is filtered through an existing personality and worldview. And, yes, out pops a ‘belief’ of how the world works. (Menstruation is affected by the full moon.)

Confirmation bias is then a description of what happens next. Basically, people see (and hear) and come to believe what they do because some initial ‘bias’ is strengthened and reinforced over time.

Confirmation bias is actually not a bias at all. Pragmatically it can be described as functioning like a sifter - you only see/hear that which reinforces the existing belief. Much like a sieve only lets through grains of a certain size.

Confirmation bias is necessary for your survival. The original belief emerged and got established because it was a heuristic that helped to explain the world. If you let everything through your sieve, you will be swamped by a tonne of grain.

Confirmation bias is not fixed. Much like if that sifter did not allow ANY grains through, you would starve. The fact is, once it outlives its usefulness or actually threatens your survival, you will adapt and change your beliefs. People figure these things out.

Confirmation bias is a normal function. Just like a plane needs to sight some guiding lights on the airstrip, humans need to sight these confirmation markers to keep us confident that we are on the right path.

Confirmation bias is moderated with experience. The frequency of the reinforcement determines the strength of the ‘bias’. The more frequent it is experienced, the stronger the bias. The stronger the bias, the more likely that it actually confirms with the truth (or actual reality.)

So, in fact:

  • A strong confirmation bias is actually more likely to be a true reflection of your experience than something ‘bad’ that should be avoided.
  • The danger lies in having ‘weak’ confirmation bias, and then making decisions that are very important based on that bias. That does not happen often enough to threaten our survival, or we would not function that way.
  • If you tried to consciously adjust for confirmation bias on almost every belief that you have (and there are thousands that affect your everyday life) you will actually probably develop mental health issues.


So confirmation bias is not really a problem that must be managed.

And listening to the ‘gurus’ will actually quite literally send you mad.