Not Relativism but “Myside Bias”

Not Relativism but “Myside Bias” October 14, 2020

The reason we can’t agree with or persuade each other is not relativism, irrationalism, or the rejection of objective truth.

“What our society is really suffering from is myside bias: People evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes.”  These are largely determined by what social group we belong to.

So says University of Toronto psychology professor Keith E. Stanovich in his article The Bias that Divides Us.

In his extensive research into the phenomenon, which is being published in a forthcoming book of the same title from MIT Press, Prof. Stanovich finds that, unlike other kinds of bias, virtually everyone displays myside bias.  It is evident in both liberals and conservatives.  It can be found among rationalists and scientists, as well as less-sophisticated folks.

Research has shown that myside bias is displayed in a variety of experimental situations: people evaluate the same virtuous act more favourably if committed by a member of their own group and evaluate a negative act less unfavourably if committed by a member of their own group; they evaluate an identical experiment more favourably if the results support their prior beliefs than if the results contradict their prior beliefs; and when searching for information, people select information sources that are likely to support their own position. Even the interpretation of a purely numerical display of outcome data is tipped in the direction of the subject’s prior belief. Likewise, judgments of logical validity are skewed by people’s prior beliefs. Valid syllogisms with the conclusion “therefore, marijuana should be legal” are easier for liberals to judge correctly and harder for conservatives; whereas valid syllogisms with the conclusion “therefore, no one has the right to end the life of a fetus” are harder for liberals to judge correctly and easier for conservatives.

Not only do highly-intelligent and highly-educated people exhibit myside bias, they are especially susceptible to it:

If you are a person of high intelligence, if you are highly educated, and if you are strongly committed to an ideological viewpoint, you will be highly likely to think you have thought your way to your viewpoint. And you will be even less likely than the average person to realize that you have derived your beliefs from the social groups you belong to and because they fit with your temperament and your innate psychological propensities.

Identity politics and the rise of critical theory have accelerated and given a justification for myside bias.  “If myside bias is the fire that has set ablaze the public communications commons in our society, then identity politics is the gasoline that is turning a containable fire into an epic conflagration. By encouraging people to view every issue through an identity lens, it creates the tendency to turn simple beliefs about testable propositions into full-blown convictions that are then projected onto new evidence.”

Prof. Stanovich shows how myside bias is rampant in academia, to the point of undermining the public’s trust in universities and making some kinds of research impossible:

Identity politics advocates have succeeded in making certain research conclusions within the university verboten. They have made it very hard for any university professor (particularly the junior and untenured ones) to publish and publicly promote any conclusions that these advocates dislike. . . .

University research on all of the charged topics where identity politics has predetermined the conclusions—immigration, racial profiling, gay marriage, income inequality, college admissions biases, sex differences, intelligence differences, and the list goes on—is simply not believable anymore by anyone cognizant of the pressures exerted by the ideological monoculture of the university. Whether or not some cultures promote human flourishing more than others; whether or not men and women have different interests and proclivities; whether or not culture affects poverty rates; whether or not intelligence is partially heritable; whether or not the gender wage gap is largely due to factors other than discrimination; whether or not race-based admissions policies have some unintended consequences; whether or not traditional masculinity is useful to society; whether or not crime rates vary between the races—these are all topics on which the modern university has dictated the conclusion before the results of any investigation are in. . . .

For research evidence to scientifically support a proposition, that proposition must itself be “falsifiable”—capable of being proven false. However, the public is increasingly aware that, in universities, for many issues related to identity politics, preferred conclusions are now dictated in advance and falsifying them in open inquiry is no longer allowed.

It appears that Prof. Stanovic is not criticizing myside bias, as such.  Rather, he presents it as a “given.”  If he is right, we do not, in fact, come to our beliefs purely by reasoning or by assembling evidence.

He does say that there is a sense in which myside bias has a rational basis, in that building on what we already know allows us to go forward, rather than going back all the time and starting from scratch.  And yet, myside bias can be corrected for by, for example, the scientific method, with its blind and double-blind studies, its insistence on replicability, and, again, “falsifiability” (that is, to be meaningful, a hypothesis must at least theoretically be capable of being proven false, that some kind of evidence could conceivably disprove it).  The problem is that some lines of inquiry and research are not allowed.  The social pressures in academia–the desire to be accepted by one’s peers–make them unthinkable.

How does myside bias apply in the church?  Well, it is certainly true that a Lutheran, a Calvinist, and a Baptist can read the same Bible and find their distinctive doctrines.  Is their disagreement, despite the same Biblical evidence, a matter of insufficient scholarship?  Maybe, at least to a point.  And yet, our religious convictions are not usually a matter simply of a logical chain of thought.  Apologetics have an important role to play, and thinking through what we believe should be more common than it is.  But faith is a gift.  It comes to us from the outside.  We do not figure it out for ourselves.  Rather, God reveals Himself to us, through His Word and (Lutherans believe) His sacraments, thus forming our Christian identity and convictions.  That the social group we belong to shapes our thinking need not undermine the concept of truth.  But it does show us why the church–the local congregation, the particular theological tradition it is a part of, and the historic church going back through the ages–is important.

Perhaps Prof. Stanovich in his upcoming book will tell us how to break out of myside bias.  I would think that simply being aware of the phenomenon can help us to be more objective in our thinking, more self-critical, and less dismissive of other sides.


Image by Szilárd Szabó from Pixabay 

"I wasn't trying to do an impression of Robert DeNiro. When I wrote that I ..."

Religion as “Communal Solidarity” or “Personal ..."
"Faith is what people call a belief that they have no evidence for."

What If Science Caused the Pandemic?, ..."
"I still remember debating a non denomination christian. At least without a denomination, they cant ..."

Not just “Nones” but “Nons”

Browse Our Archives