The Commitment Effect and Critical Thinking

Julia Galef has a video about the commitment effect, one of the many ways that our ability to think clearly and rationally is easily undermined. Many studies show that once we commit to a position, it is much harder for us to think critically about it. We devote more of our energy to defending it than evaluating it. Rationalists in particular have to guard against this, especially because we tend to think that we’re immune to that effect and we’re not.

httpv://youtu.be/Z8PsX0D6Zrc

I think this effect is often compounded by our tendency toward tribalism. Especially when it’s an issue we feel really strongly and passionately about, it’s all too easy for us to draw very black and white lines. Everyone who agrees with me is on my side and everyone else is on the other side. And if someone agrees with us 95% of the way but quibbles with one small part, we often quickly put them on the other side. And once we do that, we tend to ignore the 95% agreement and presume that they agree with what everyone else we’ve put on the other side believes — which too often means what the worst person on that side believes. We do this in politics and religion and, all too often, in blogging.

It can also be compounded even further if we have a following, as on a blog. It becomes very easy to play to the crowd instead of giving due consideration to criticisms of our position, especially when most of our readers agree with us. And I say we because I’ve been guilty of this behavior more than a few times. I’m sure I will be again. As Julia correctly points out, it takes real effort to avoid these cognitive pitfalls. The commitment has to be made not to the position but to the process by which we come to those positions.

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  • raven

    Many studies show that once we commit to a position, it is much harder for us to think critically about it. We devote more of our energy to defending it than evaluating it.

    This could be the mechanism behind Fundie xian Induced Cognitive Impairment.

    This is a real clinical entity.

    The data is readily available to anyone. In fact, it is hard to avoid the data.

    Michele Bachmann, 3 degrees, one in law, passed the bar, now unable to cross the street without her minder.

    Internet trolls.

    Fundie xians, who score low in IQ and education on average.

    Comitment Bias is of course, markedly enhanced by trying to defend imaginary friends in the sky, huge piles of lies about the earth and reality, the bible isn’t a kludgy evil mess, and trying to pretend those vaguely humanoid toad (or xian Hutt) leaders have anything worthwhile to offer.

    Fundie xians do seem to wander around in a mental fog so thick it is Dark.

  • eric

    Everyone who agrees with me is on my side and everyone else is on the other side.

    Oh, the bias is much more subtly nasty than that. The commitment effect leads us to logic like this:

    “I’ve analysed my position [but because of the commitment effect, I really haven’t done a good job of it], and

    determined that my position is clearly and rationally the correct one. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t share my position must (a) not be able to think clearly, or (b) must know my answer is right and be rejecting it for ulterior motives. I.e., they must be stupid or evil. Since there is no possible way that any rational, honest human being could disagree with me on this, anyone who disagrees with me is either not rational or not honest.”

    And that’s how you get people who donate a lot of time and money for noble cause A screaming nasty things at people who donate a lot of time and money for noble cause B. Because ‘if they don’t value A over B like I do, they must be stupid or evil.’ Even though, to the outsider, both sets are donating a lot of time and money toward noble causes and thus morally praiseworthy and pretty damn decent.

  • Peach Pitt

    Thank you for this, Ed.

    One more demonstration of the reason why, year after year, Dispatches from the Culture Wars is my first click of the day.

    Although I wonder now how I can carry on a conversation of any depth without losing my train of thought because I’m so busy watching out for assorted cognitive biases. And that’s the only kind of conversation I really like! Gonna be a lot of dead air.

    Maybe that would be an improvement anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1360322113 aaronbaker

    I think this effect is often compounded by our tendency toward tribalism. Especially when it’s an issue we feel really strongly and passionately about, it’s all too easy for us to draw very black and white lines. Everyone who agrees with me is on my side and everyone else is on the other side. And if someone agrees with us 95% of the way but quibbles with one small part, we often quickly put them on the other side. And once we do that, we tend to ignore the 95% agreement and presume that they agree with what everyone else we’ve put on the other side believes — which too often means what the worst person on that side believes. We do this in politics and religion and, all too often, in blogging.

    And thus we get whatever circle of Hell Pharyngula currently occupies.

  • Trebuchet

    The PETA post above is an excellent example of this.

  • oranje

    That could explain why my parents used AOL until 2008.

  • Alverant

    The problem I see is even giving the other side a hint that you aren’t 110% committed to what you’re saying would be seen as having doubt. Doubt is a metaphorical gap for crowbars wielded by people who would never doubt their commitment and demand everyone else see their point of view, even if that view is wrong.

  • Sastra

    Well, since I feel very comfortable here on Dispatches from the Culture Wars I guess I ought to feel very, very skeptical about this so-called need to question my commitments. Why should I? Huh?

    No, this was a thought-provoking post and good video. I thought of two things:

    1.) The Commitment Effect is not hidden, but front-and-center in any system which relies on “faith” or claims it as a virtue. Religious faith is making a commitment to stand by a conclusion (God exists; Jesus is Lord; mystical experiences reveal the True nature of reality) as if you were standing by a person or value. You will not abandon God, you will not give up your convictions, you will not change your mind because if you do so then who you are will die. You are obliged to twist yourself into rational pretzels in order to massage the evidence, spin the data, and figure out a way to discover that your conclusion is not just correct — but even better than it was before the “challenge!” Entrenchment is mistaken for loyalty and courage.

    Faith is the Commitment Effect on steroids.

    2.) I think that one way to help avoid the way we often hold too stubbornly on to the ideas and ideals we defend is to make sure we are not always preaching to the choir. Seek out diversity and go right to the “enemy.” Listen to them. Understand them and their arguments. They are almost always smarter and/or trickier than we imagine they are. And things get complicated as it goes back and forth. There are bound to be surprises. Take your most cherished ideas to your worst critics and ask “now — where do you think this is wrong?” If there IS some good contrary evidence out there, you’re placing yourself in its way.

    Getting back to the dangers of Faith, I think we atheists and freethinkers have a tendency to think it’s much worse when religious people want to debate us. The quiet believer who keeps to their own group is so much more acceptable. Nothing is worse than a proselytizer trying to convert — presumably.

    But at least those people are out there, seeking diversity and forced to confront views that challenge theirs and figure out how to deal with them. Where there is diversity, there is hope for an emerging common ground. I personally am much more suspicious and wary of the faith-based Believer who would never, ever, want to argue with an atheist … or hear one out, or listen to the other side, or go outside the tribe they belong to and encounter something different.. That attitude, I think, is actually more dangerous.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    @4: I was thinking it and you said it. Thank you for this post, Ed. It’s way too easy to categorize everyone as good guys & bad guys, with the main determining factor being how much people are like us.

  • eric

    @7:

    The problem I see is even giving the other side a hint that you aren’t 110% committed to what you’re saying would be seen as having doubt.

    What do you care what your opponents think about your internal state?

    If you are honest, then other honest people (on both sides of whatever debate you’re having) will hopefully understand your nuanced or less committed position (they may not), and the dishonest people will make up lies about your commitment. True, that latter part is a risk you take. On the other hand, if you hide your true opinon behind some false sense of commitment, then other honest people have less of a chance of getting what you’re trying to say…and the dishonest people will still make up lies about your commitment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597316935 ashleybell

    For me, the first thing to determine when debating or arguing with someone is whether or not they are doing so in good faith. Are they using cheap sophistry and hyperskeptical expectations of evidence to derail the conversation when it s not going their way? If so, I just stop arguing. Bad faith players aren’t being genuine so there’s no obligation to argue with them even if they are unaware of what they’re doing, they’re STILL doing it and nothing productive can come from it. Just be sure you’re applying the same standard to yourself

  • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

    @aaronbaker, it is becoming a hallmark of activist mindsets to stereotype and pigeonhole each other, assigning sides, practicing loyalty, and promoting wholesale vilification of those that have even valid criticisms.. These types are just as bad as any religious or political groups for black and white thinking.

    They are becoming an embarrassment. I do have to keep in mind, though, that I can quickly succumb to the same type of lazy thinking – speaking for myself. So, even though it is easy, because of our tribalism, to segment into warring factions(lol), it is blatantly, obviously, wrong. I wonder about the abilities of a lot of self claimed skeptics to actually carry on a rational discussion in some subjects.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1360322113 aaronbaker

    @12:

    I hope I didn’t give the impression that I exempt myself from these criticisms.

  • davideriksen

    @9 I don’t know if you’ve still been reading over there but several people have been arguing that your ban was unjust. I haven’t seen anyone say otherwise.

    Maybe, one day, Pharyngula threads will be as fun to read as they were a few years ago.

  • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

    @14,

    No, not at all. I was implying that the groupthink perpetrators might think about looking at themselves, and what they might learn, in order to improve. I just found that they love to keep the focus on the other side.

    Myself, I used to tie into the odd Christian, just to be a prick. I thought it was cool to pile onto the ‘scapegoat of the day’ with a bunch of others, but it never sat right, and I became personally embarrassed at my own shortcomings in ‘debating,’ when I started looking at what I was saying, and how I was acting. I had noticed that as soon as a creationist opened their mouth, I started foaming at the mouth. Hey, it happens, but when it becomes the primary MO, it is no longer about ideas, or self respect. It becomes a circle of hell! 😉

  • http://windaelicker.worpress.com mikmik

    Shite, I meant @13, aaronbaker! Sorry, davideriksen. I do, although, agree with you. There were, and still are, some pretty interesting people that comment there. I just wish I didn’t feel like I am walking on eggshells when commenting there.

  • lofgren

    This is why I tend to have less interest in blogs/fora/etc. where I find that there is too little disagreement. The reason Ed’s is my favorite blog, besides the well-above-average calibre of the frequent commenters, is that I agree with Ed on most things but disagree strongly with him on others. His ideological position is similar enough to mine that I know we have similar values and goals, but different enough that when he says something I disagree with I have to stop and think and make sure that I came by my own position honestly and rationally.

    There is definitely a certain enclave of so-called freethinkers who seem to believe that the commitment effect is either not real, doesn’t effect them, or, most frighteningly, is a beneficial tool to wield. Too often I see comments that deliberate attempt to insulate the freethinker/A+/whatever it’s called these days position from critical evaluation. Two of my least favorite sayings in the community are “JAQing off,” and “FREEZE PEACH.” JAQing off refers to an attempt to use the phrase “I’m just asking questions” to obscure a commenter’s agenda, meaning the commenter is not conversing in good faith. FREEZE PEACH refers to arguments that speech and speakers should be free from all criticism. Both sayings have their origins in real phenomenon.

    However I have also seen “JAQing off” used far too often to attempt to dismiss people who seem to be legitimately seeking answers to complex questions (a behavior that we should be encouraging more than any other group). It’s not even that they are asking questions that we don’t have answers for. It’s usually just that it seems the questioner is at a different point on their skeptical journey than the responder. The responder answered those questions for themselves a long time ago so they assume that anybody who is still struggling with the question must be trolling. Even if we don’t end up changing our position we should embrace the opportunity to try to explain ourselves again. The process of explaining our own reasoning and beliefs to others helps keep us honest to ourselves, and it helps keep our positions from becoming stale convictions clung to out of habit (or the commitment effect).

    Likewise an accusation that a poster is a believer in “FREEZE PEACH” seems likely to follow any suggestion that, while the commenter may disagree with the speech in question, certain counter-arguments, criticisms, or retaliatory efforts are out of line. This often dovetails with the type of flawed reasoning that leads people to agree with the statement “Fish have gills. Sharks have gills. Therefore sharks are fish.” The commenters know the conclusion is right (the speech in question is wrong), and therefore they see any attempt to point out irrationality or dis-proportionality in their responses as an endorsement of the speech or as denial that any kind of response is appropriate at all.

    Yes, I am speaking from personal experience. But not exclusively.

    Another example that I see less often (and has never been levied against me personally) is an accusation that a commenter is trying to be a “Cool Girl.” Anytime a female commenter says that some behavior the tribe has deemed to be horribly misogynistic says something like “You know, I don’t really think this is as big a problem as you are making it out to be,” there is a fair chance that she will be called a “Cool Girl.” But being a Cool Girl is a specific pose in which a female attempts to present herself as above or unconcerned or unaffected by sexism in order to endear herself to males. It’s entirely possible for women to disagree with each other about what is and isn’t problematic behavior, and the scope of those problems, and the proper tactics for responding to them, without either side taking their position in order to impress boys.

    Every online community has these types of shorthand dismissals for the most worthless amongst them. Very often they are the result of real phenomena. Some commenters really do ask questions dishonestly, with no interest or care for the answer, and it’s pointlessly agonizing to talk to such people because the conversation will never go anywhere. There really are people who think that freedom of speech means that anybody can say whatever they want and nobody should ever criticize or disagree with them. And there really are girls who strike a disaffected pose because their social circle is dominated by men and they don’t want to cause a disruption by calling out sexism or misogyny when they see it. But all three of these responses effectively say, “You have no value in this conversation, I am not going to even consider your comments.” We need to be extra careful that we use them only when the commenter has truly earned that level of indignity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1360322113 aaronbaker

    I’ll just second here what’s already been said above: for all Pharyngula’s faults, there’s a LOT of smart, well-thought out commenting going on there. I’ve certainly been forced to rethink or even junk an argument that I thought was pretty dispositive, after hearing what some of the posters there had to say.