How My Mother Overcomes the “Mother of All Biases”

My mother has opinions. Lots of them. Strong ones. These beliefs are decreed with the force of gospel to all comers: The King’s English is the only proper way to speak. Jack Daniels makes the best bourbon. Airlines pad their flight times to artificially produce more on-time arrivals. Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion is the definitive cause of the obesity epidemic in America. Once we tell the 42 percent of Americans who have some doubts that humans cause global warming that 97 percent of scientists have no doubts whatsoever, then the 42 percent will see the light.

That my mother has intuitions about how the world around her works is unremarkable—we all hold these beliefs. What is completely remarkable is the ease with which she will abandon these opinions and pet theories in the face of countervailing evidence. As someone who studies, thinks, and writes about biases, I know that this capacity is no small feat.

Of the various biases that derail our ability to perceive the world as it truly is, confirmation bias ranks as especially sinister. After developing a pet theory of how the world works, confirmation bias convinces us of the infallibility of our theory. As new evidence arises, we emphasize that which coheres with our theory, deeming it “especially important.” Yet when we encounter evidence that undermines our theory, we tend to discount or ignore it. Consequently, we often convince ourselves that even our most dubious, unsupported theories are correct. For this reason, some social psychologists view confirmation bias as the “mother of all biases.”

How can we overcome such a pernicious bias? Although my teenage self winces as I type it—maybe we should all take a lesson from my mother.

To fully appreciate the destructive force of this bias, we need look no further than its role in our treatment of Mother Earth. In the United States, we look forward to public discussions about climate change as much as we relish thinking about our national debt. Millions of Americans have convinced themselves that climate change does not exist or, if it exists, is not caused by humans. By surrounding themselves with like-minded others, placing faith in certain politicians, and discounting most scientists, they maintain these beliefs.

A comparable proportion of Americans thinks anyone who cannot listen to the facts of climate change is not worth talking to. They forget how often they too commit elaborate acts of rationalization in the face of strong evidence—just ask jet-setting academics. Because these two sides have so thoroughly convinced themselves of their rightness and of their political adversaries’ flawed reasoning, conversations have ceased.

As I was growing up, whenever conflicts with my sister escalated to the point where conversations ceased, my mother cautioned us to “go work it out, or else.” It seems clear that we are receiving the same stern warning from Mother Earth. The spanking Mother Earth gave us in Houston, Puerto Rico, Southern California, and Kauai will look like love pats if both sides do not overcome confirmation bias and work it out immediately.

The author with his mother, Carol. Image courtesy of the author.

How can we overcome such a pernicious bias? Although my teenage self winces as I type it—maybe we should all take a lesson from my mother. At some level, I think she realizes that we engage in confirmation bias mainly to appease our egos, a view I take in a recent working paper. We all feel better about ourselves when our pet theories are correct.

My mother’s insight is that her sense of self can be gratified through learning just as easily as it can through being right. When you inform her that, technically, Jack Daniels is not even bourbon, she has no need to perform the mental gymnastics required to maintain faith in her theory. Instead, she elects to view herself as imbued with a new understanding, and thus smarter than she was mere minutes ago.

When you explain that America’s obesity epidemic is probably a shade more complex and multicausal than mere Bloomin’ Onions, she easily acknowledges, “Yes, I suppose that makes sense.”

Can taking our failed pet theories and reframing them as learning opportunities work for the rest of us?

When you tell her that she was right about those airlines padding their times, she is happy to gloat a little bit (especially if my dad held the opposing theory). But she knows, ultimately, she is not any smarter as a result of her pet theory “winning,” so she quickly moves on from that too.

Can taking our failed pet theories and reframing them as learning opportunities work for the rest of us? Can it help us initiate conversations about climate before we push Mother Earth past her breaking point? My pet theory is yes.

Image courtesy of the author.

As part of a second working paper, my colleagues and I recently surveyed people on both sides of the political aisle about their beliefs in climate science. For half the sample, we asked them how much faith they had in climate science. For the other half, we first reminded them how much credible scientific learning we have accumulated across multiple branches of science and then asked the climate science questions.

This intervention was small, merely reminding participants about how much we have learned from science over the years, but it shrank the gap between liberals’ and conservatives’ beliefs about climate science.

To me, this is compelling evidence that a learning frame can counteract confirmation bias. However, if some countervailing evidence comes along later, I promise to replace any defensive instincts with gratitude for the new learning I have acquired. My mother is counting on it.