Confirming Our Beliefs

I can tell you a million reasons why 'NOT' to go climbing ...

On the way to a very fun, scary, and exciting climb up one of the hills/ridges that are near the family stead, my sister Sierra was reading her Social Psychology textbook to me in the car. What she read made me stop and say, “Wow, I’ve seen that happen before at work, at church, at school, even in my family!”. Social Psychology is the study of how groups affect people, and how people affect groups.

Here is what she read – it was in the heading titled “Our Beliefs can Generate their own Confirmation; Do we get what we Expect from Others?”

“So, the expectations of experimenters and teachers, though usually reasonably accurate assessments, occasionally act as self-fulfilling prophecies. How general is this effect? Do we get from others what we expect of them? There are times when negative expectations of someone lead us to be extra nice to that person, which induces them to be nice in return- thus disconfirming our expectations. But a more common finding in studies of social interaction is that, yes, we do to some extent get what we expect (Olson & others, 1996).
In laboratory games, hostility nearly always begets hostility: People who perceive their opponents as noncooperative will readily induce them to be noncooperative (Kelly & Stahelski, 1970). Self-confirming beliefs abound when their is conflict. Each party’s perception of the other as aggressive, resentful, and vindictive induces the other to display these behaviors in self-defense, thus creating a vicious self-perpetuating circle. Whether I expect my wife to be in a bad mood or in a warm, loving mood might affect how I relate to her, thereby inducing her to confirm my belief. [“Exploring Social Psychology”, 2nd ed, David Myers]

I was in the driver’s seat with my jaw laying in my lap as I am listening and steering the Buick between the yellow and white lines along the interstate. I have seen this so many times – my belief in something affected the way I did something, which therefore caused the action I expected, which confirmed the validity of the belief. As you can tell, this is dangerous.

How do we stop confirming our beliefs and actually just find out what is really going on? It requires patience and allowing us to look at all sides of the issue(s). If I am troubleshooting why my internet keeps dropping out at the house, do I only use one computer, one browser, or one boot-session to do my testing? Troubleshooting, getting to the heart of a matter, what ever you want to call it requires thinking outside of the box, asking non-leading questions, figuring out how the system’s interactions work, and testing from multiple angles and assumptions. Try a different browser, try a different computer, try rebooting the computer, etc … what about the iPod touch – does it behave the same way? Oh it does, does it … then it’s something upstream … maybe that crazy router.

Things I have found to help:

  • Sometimes it is not what you see, but what you do not see that is important … on the flip side, however, this can become an argument ‘from silence’ which is generally not strong
  • If a belief is true, then help validate it by approaching the opposite belief and see if it is false – if not, then something else is in play
  • Find the premise, the root cause, the foundation to really test a belief’s validity
  • Find a devil’s advocate – whether that be yourself, a wife/husband, coworker, etc – and see if you can defend your belief
  • Remove as many variables as possible when confirming the belief

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