Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Afflictions of the Mind : Part - 4.2 (The Prison of Beliefs)

4.2 Cognitive Biases, Gross Generalizations, Superstitions and Faith

Cognitive Biases

Or simply biases, they are aberrations in the Mind that prevent a person from thinking correctly. These are so universal that one can call them inherent. These have deep roots in evolutionary history of the Mind, and also are caused due to socio-cultural indoctrination [1]. What a bias does is, makes one reach illogical or incorrect conclusion by injecting a belief in the thinking process. This is often fully automatic and the person is not even aware of his bias. Sometimes even when the presence of a bias is shown, the person refuses to accept it, reason – justification of belief – "I cannot be wrong", aka stupidity.

There are hundreds of biases, and surprisingly (or not!) not many people are aware of them. Many psychological and social studies have been done on them and exotic names are assigned to them. Here is an extensive list of biases if you are interested and unbiased towards reading them: List of cognitive biases.

One need not memorize the list, just knowing that one can have these biases helps to remain uninfluenced by them. However, I recommend doing a small exercise – read them and see them if you are afflicted by some of them, or most of them. This alone will raise your awareness sufficiently, if you are open minded, it will start a process of cleansing them from your Mind. Awareness is the key. Once you know, you don’t have any excuse to be biased again.

I’m going to mention some of the common ones, because we all suffer from them. Here is a short list:

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Groupthink : Perhaps the most universal bias, aka herd mentality. One tends to accept something as “truth” simply because everyone else seems to accept it. One needs to decouple the democratic acceptance from actual fact, and the bias goes away. Critical thinking skills are needed to see this – just because someone says its true, does not mean it is so (that is, it does not become your own experience magically). And just because a number of people say so, it does not become a truth somehow. If a large group of people believe in something that is not founded in experience of even one of them, it is just mass stupidity.

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.

- Bertrand Russell 

Cherry picking: Aka confirmation bias. One tends to pick out the information that supports his existing beliefs, from a pile of available information. Even though the pile may contain a large amount of information that goes against his belief, he ignores it completely and pretends that opposing evidence does not exists. It is a common bias and even intelligent people suffer from it and use it to justify their beliefs or actions. One can get rid of it by intentionally looking for opposing evidence, and open-mindedly accepting it. This will destroy the root belief too.

Framing: People are susceptible to the way an idea is presented. If it is presented in a positive way with lots of positive sounding words, it is automatically believed to be positive (or good). And vice versa. The positive words direct an untrained mind to take the idea as positive too, and suppress any critical thinking that can occur if it is presented neutrally. Advertisers use this bias to sell their often ordinary products effectively. A doctor holding a toothbrush, makes it more acceptable. A pretty model drinking a soup of chemicals (aka cold drinks) makes you go and drink it robotically. Politicians use negative framing to demonize their enemies, making it easy to kill them. So tags like terrorist, enemy of the nation or framed charged are used effectively without evoking public suspicion.

Appeal to authority: The unconscious belief that if a famous or respected person has said something, it must be true. The fact of the matter must be evaluated via direct experimentation that provides a direct experience of the subject, rather than blindly believing some authority. Note that if an authority says something, its chances of being correct go up, but it does not “become” correct. People who manipulate others often use this bias to install beliefs into others by telling them to believe something which was once said by some great man or is written in some old book. People obey, reason – this bias.

In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.

 - Galileo Galilei 

Selective perception: We see what we want to see, or see only that which we believe is true. So if we believe that a person is bad (morally), we selectively see only his bad actions. This often escalates hate for no reason, and causes harm. Another good example is a suspicious person seeing most of the actions of their partner as an attempt to conceal cheating. This often leads to a failure of marriage or a miserable married life. If one believes that a magical ritual is going to get him what he want, he will see events, among random events, that bring him closer to his goal as effectiveness of the ritual, and ignore the events that do not confirm his belief.

False causation: The tendency to assume that if two events happen at the same time or one after the other, one causes the other. The events may be completely unrelated or at most correlated. But correlation is not causation.

Wishful thinking: Twisted interpretation of actual evidence to make it sound like it confirms one's beliefs or preferences.

Halo effect: The spill over of one quality of a person into his other assumed qualities. For example a beautiful person is automatically assumed to be ethical or truthful. A rich person is assumed to be a great person and so on. One good quality does not guarantee goodness in every other area. Food in a clean restaurant may or may not taste good.

Dunning-Kruger effect: An incompetent person has a belief that he is more competent than an experienced and competent person. This happens because an incompetent person is incapable of seeing the difficulty of achieving expertise in something. Not only an incompetent person is so, he is unaware that he is so. This causes the “boss syndrome”, where those who don’t know about a field or subject claim to know the most.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
- Bertrand Russell

Gross Generalizations

This may sound like a bias, it is a bit inherent but more of an acquired belief. It is the tendency to believe that a special case applies to the total class. The class can be people or objects or cultures, anything. It has some evolutionary roots, as it helps in survival. The sight of a tiger killing and eating another man is enough to apply the tag of “dangerous” to all tigerkind. This of course helps a lot, as all tigers are mostly the same. However, this ancient tendency still continues till today when the extent of human experience is vast and diverse. No two persons are same, so the characteristics of one cannot automatically transfer to other just because they can be categorized based on some random criteria, such as nationality or race or language.

One thing to note here is that some people belonging to a class do behave in a common way depending on the situation. This is known as mob mentality, but the same person often behaves differently when not in a group. Sometimes there is some justification for generalization for example when taking decisions about a large group of people, as in long term planning by governments. But generalizations often fail when we want to judge individuals. A person behaves quite differently when not identified with his class, or when in a different place, for example.

This belief causes many social problems, such as racial discrimination and casteism. The amount of suffering this belief causes is immense. This belief also results in stereotyping, which lessens the amount of choices one has while dealing with people and therefore lessens the freedom one has. To get rid of this belief one needs to throw away the huge amount of classes and categories we put people into, and see clearly that an individual is a unique and dynamic entity.

One must consider some practical aspects too, and act wisely and safely when the situation demands. Go ahead and make sweeping generalizations when your survival is at stake, this is the purpose of it anyway. For example, there is a general belief that slum dwellers are mostly criminals, immoral people whose actions are driven by need for money, they have none. Of course, it is not applicable to all slum dwellers, some of them can be nice and helpful people and most may be just harmless. So do I take a shortcut via a slum while going home late in the night? Well, the choice should be obvious here. Just make a gross generalization and take the other longer way.

The same behaviour, similar attitude, when the survival is not an issue, becomes plain stupidity. But then many people connect everything to survival most of the time, and keep acting gross on grossly generalized beliefs. (Did I just make yet another gross generalization here? :))


The Burning of a Witch by Albert Von Keller

This class of beliefs are bottom of the barrel kind, but one should not underestimate them. Even intelligent and educated people suffer from superstitions.  They are irrational fantasies, that take the form of truth. People act on them robotically (no offense to robots). One can easily trace a superstition to an irrational fear, or some desire. The fear/desire is so strong that it twists the mind into believing very strange things.

There are numerous examples of superstitions. Usually uneducated people suffer from them. But indoctrination or blindly following others results in even educated, sane people getting afflicted by them. We see a lot of superstition in religious people and even the so called spiritual people. The reason is that the religious/spiritual ideas promise a lot of magical stuff, which is nowhere to be seen when it comes to direct experience. And therefore believers in that stuff must rely on blind beliefs to “make them true”.

There are some harmless kinds of superstitions, like wearing your “lucky shirt” (or underwear?) on the day of a job interview. But some superstitions do cause harm, such as burning a widow with her husband’s dead body in order to send her to heaven to serve her husband there. How amusing… but the suffering caused to the person who is affected by these superstitions is immense.

How to get rid of superstitions? Trace them back to the fear you have and kill the fear. Once you are convinced that acting in some stupid way to avoid some fear is not going to help a lot, you can let go of the superstitious beliefs, and the odd behaviour drops away. If it is a desire, e.g. to pass in an exam, realize it clearly and consciously that actually reading a textbook will help more than burning incense in front of it. There is no causal connection between incense and your memory here, just to be explicit and obvious. If you acquired the superstition from parents, friends, books, religions, movies or society, question it and try to find a basis. If you don’t find it based on your experience, or if you can’t find even one trustworthy person who experienced it, you need to simply let go of the superstition.

Consciously and intentionally not acting on a superstitious belief helps. This is the fastest way to get rid of them. If you are on a spiritual path and a teacher hands you over a superstitious practice, question it, ask him to demonstrate it, prove it, show it, or at least offer logical explanations based on your direct experience (not his). If the teacher is genuine and is experienced, he will not ask a student to practice something which he himself cannot demonstrate. However there are some exceptions, where you need to just accept a strange practice or teaching and look for an experience yourself. If you can’t find that in a reasonable amount of time, just let it go.


A faith is a belief or a collection of beliefs that generally has positive connotations. Trust is a synonym for that. This is how I’m going to use these terms here. A faith is a belief, an assumption not based on direct experience that has a quality of hope and assurance in it. Humans use it for practical purposes and also when they realize that some goals cannot be reached if one is dependent solely on direct experience. Faith is also useful in cases where it would consume too much time or take too much effort to know the truth before one can act on it. So it serves as a sort of shortcut to arrive at a decision and subsequent action. But, try signing a deal worth a few million and you will find a total absence of faith and trust, even if the person you are dealing with is your relative or a friend. The stakes are now too high, and the hope and assurance is not enough to believe. So a faith works only when there is no great danger or threat to survival.

A person holding a faith should have a full awareness of the fact that it is a temporary belief, not a truth, and then it is justified. A faith should be a temporary suspension of disbelief, nothing more. One must resort to faith only when there is no other option and only when the risks are minor. When the faith is repeatedly corroborated via subsequent direct experiences, it becomes a Living faith [2]. A living faith is beneficial because it makes you progress and brings you knowledge. If the faith produces no knowledge or is proven false repeatedly, or if there is no way to establish it in direct experience, it becomes a Blind faith. Blind faith causes harm and retards you in your progress, as it wastes a lot of time and effort.
So is faith an affliction? Blind faith is, no doubts. When your hopeful positive fluffy belief produces no evidence, no result, has no use at all, then it is just an affliction. Try it again and again, but if it fails the litmus test of experience, its time to let it go. Even if it was true for someone else, it is not true for you. No amount of faith in it is going to make it true for you in a reasonable amount of time. Try something else, there are so many paths. Your pet idea is not more important than your progress. All ideas and faiths are disposable, if they don’t work for you.

Some people justify blind faith by simply assuming that it is working for them. A belief cannot become a justification for another belief. It is just delusion. Check and cross check, then check again. Is this faith really working? No…throw it away. Yes, then you don’t need it anyway, you have a direct experience if it worked, move on to the next belief in the ladder of progress and test it out.

Some of the spiritual traditions require the aspirant to have faith, believe in things, perform rituals, live a seemingly illogical life. I’m not going to judge those here [3]. Do it if that works. Whatever floats your boat. Ensure that it takes you to the shore. The only thing to remember is that don’t carry the boat on your back once you cross the river.


[1]  You will encounter the phrase "evolutionary history" or "evolutionary cause" in many articles on this blog. Isn't the idea that the Mind evolved through ages, only a belief? Have I experienced the evolution of the Mind directly? If you are asking such questions, your critical thinking skills are working nicely. No, I haven't experienced the evolution of the Mind myself. I guess, no one else has, there is no "I" to experience such things. So at best its a useful theory that explains a lot of strange things. However, I have experienced the happening called "change" (which I call Experiencing, in founding articles). Change ensures that an organizing process (the Fundamental Process) kicks in as a necessity. Evolution means nothing but change, although a directed change because of the constrains of the environment (aka fitness function). Once you see such change, it is a straightforward deduction that everything evolves. It is not a leap of faith that some of our behaviours are a result of constrained change, it is the only logical conclusion. If I saw no change anywhere, I wouldn't refer to a "different state in past" because there wouldn't be a past, no time and no different states. But my experience is totally opposite.

[2] I’m grateful to Ishwar Puri for introducing the concept of Living faith. A student must take a leap of faith and follow his master when there are insurmountable barriers in his path or when the teaching is simply too difficult for him to grasp on his own. A true master will always show a living proof of his teachings when the right time arrives.

[3] The various faiths, beliefs, rituals etc must be seen as just tools. One can advocate their use based on their efficacy. The tools may be fictitious and may have no truth of their own, but they may still work. The problem arises when aspirants take these tools as truths. Some fake teachers take undue advantage of students by asking them to believe in him blindly. Some stupid and gullible students actually obey.

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