Explaining Bias

By Adam Leonard

The ability of fMRI scans to detect which modules of the brain are
active during cognitive processes provides a crude, but nonetheless
revealing window into how we “think”: it allows testing whether some of
our gross assumptions are true or not.

For example, a widely referenced July 2006 Scientific American “Skeptic”
column https://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-political-brain by
Michael Shermer proclaimed, : “A recent brain-imaging study shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias.”

The column related that shortly before the 2004 presidential election
fifteen subjects who described themselves as “strong Republicans” and
fifteen who described themselves as “strong Democrats” underwent fMRI
brain scans while being asked to assess statements by George W. Bush and
John F. Kerry in which the candidates appeared to contradict themselves.
In all cases the subjects were critical of the candidate they opposed,
and spun explanations excusing the candidate they supported. … What was
surprising, however, was what the fMRI scans revealed: parts of the
brain associated with processing emotions, resolving conflict, and
making moral judgments were activated, but the part of the brain
associated with reasoning was not. When the subjects finally arrived at
a conclusion that satisfied them, the part of the brain associated with
reward and pleasure was activated.

Because of this and other studies, it is now generally accepted that
confirmation bias exists, that it is caused by unconscious processing in
the brain, and that it causes us to favor data confirming our
beliefs/theories and to ignore or discount data challenging them.

Awareness of confirmation bias is hardly new, as demonstrated by the
Francis Bacon quote accompanying Shermer’s column:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … 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 … in order that by this
great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former
conclusions may remain inviolate.” –Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

What has changed, however, is that when Bacon and others observed the
phenomenon it could not be “proven”: it was not science … it was only an
interesting opinion. Now, with the advent of fMRI and other tools, it is
possible to test theories about unconscious processing in the brain,
although admittedly still crudely.

One of the theories roughly supported by the fMRI data is that the brain
processes ideas similarly to the way it is known to process vision: that
is, discrete features of the raw input are separated and processed in
parallel by numerous brain modules, and the output from the modules is
“somehow” merged to produce the colorful, continuous, 3-D vision we
experience. Whenever the brain is unable to successfully merge all of
the output, however, it “makes up” a possible or probable solution and
presents it to us as reality – the standard, repeatable “optical
illusions” we’re all familiar with.

Knowing that the brain processes visual data in this way – and observing
the distributed processing disclosed by fMRI – makes it reasonable to
hypothesize that the brain processes ideas by weighing them against
existing beliefs and biasing our judgment of the ideas accordingly. …
Interestingly, this would also explain the time delays that Jung
observed during the word-association tests that led to his theory of
complexes; the data could be reinterpreted to describe, not complexes,
but complex, time-consuming parallel processing going on to resolve the
competing, sometimes conflicting ideas evoked by the words. (Although
various word-association tests have already been conducted during fMRI,
I am not aware of any aimed at exploring Jung’s studies.)

An awareness that unconscious bias exists in all of us, scientists as
well, helps to explain the not infrequent battles that arise whenever
new data begins to conflict with accepted theory. It is normal, and
unfortunately natural, for proponents of an existing theory or viewpoint
to fiercely reject without real examination any data that might
challenge the status quo. Hopefully, the growing awareness that we are
all “wired” to do this will cause us to consciously resist our impulse.


  1. Regarding your comment:-
    “Hopefully, the growing awareness that we are all “wired” to do this will cause us to consciously resist our impulse.”
    I think we will need to change the way we have all been trained to think.

    Broadly, we tend to be trained in Critical Thinking which is based on what is being shown to be a misunderstanding of how the world and the human mind function. Widespread training in Integrative Thinking based on our increasingly more accurate scientific understanding of the world and our minds is feasible and necessary to address this huge limitation on human potential and the unsustainable world we have.

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