Walking on the Myside

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum 46 (1620)

In argumentation and creative writing, we can inventively use cognitive “myside bias” (David Perkins), a.k.a. “confirmation bias” (Maria Lewicka)—or “Tolstoy syndrome” (Leo Tolstoy), “Morton’s demon” (Glenn Morton), or the “law of fives” (Discordianism) [see Brain Biases and News for a more comprehensive list].

(Compare the “Semmelweis reflex [or effect],” where new research based upon bold predictions is swiftly rejected because it threatens the established paradigm.)

Myside bias is the tendency when we look for evidence to prefer information that confirms our preconceptions or hypotheses, regardless of whether they are true or not. We do this when

  1. we selectively collect new information,
  2. we interpret information in a biased way (a.k.a. assimilation bias), or
  3. we selectively recall information from memory.

It is invoked to explain

  1. attitude polarization, where we interpret ambiguous information to entrench the differences between our positions (see Lord, Ross and Lepper 1979);
  2. belief perseverance, where we hold to a position despite information that conflicts with it;
  3. the irrational primacy effect, where we weight information that appears early in a series more strongly; and
  4. illusory correlation, where we find non-existent correlations to support a position.

Why does it happen? It is a form of subjective validation, that combines

  1. motivation, i.e., wishful thinking, a kind of Pollyanna principle (we apply a high evidential standard—”Must I believe this?”—to unpalatable ideas and a low standard—”Can I believe this?”—to preferred ideas), or an excessive desire for consistency; and
  2. cognitive errors, i.e., limitations in our ability to handle complex tasks, and side-effects of our heuristics (information-processing shortcuts).

Heath Hinegardner, from Jason Zweig, “How to Ignore the Yes-Man in Your Head . . .

But we need not see ourselves as trapped in our symbolical heads (saying/seeing “YES”). These myside biases can be used to generate or shape ideas; we can use our biases. For example,

  1. in argumentation, we can make our argument more effective by questioning à la Stephen Toulmin its warrant (the assumption that links the claim and the data adduced to support it, which makes them reasonable to the audience), and the backings (the normally implicit scientific/philosophical/ideological truths—whether we see them as laws, axioms, methodologies, narratives, paradigms, etc.—that support the warrant, which makes it believable to the audience); and by exploring the positionality—or what Haraway (1991) calls our “partial [particular and biased] perspective”—from which we are arguing. To use the Kantian terminology, we are exploring the conditions of possibility of such our argument being persuasive or coming into existence.
  2. In creative writing, we can see the world through the eyes of a particular character (focalization), more or less outré, a kind of attitude polarization; or use associative logic or coincidence to generate or shape the plot, characters or setting (the association of ideas; cf. attribute substitution), a kind of illusory correlation; etc.
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