The Blue Pill: Caught in the Quicksand of Confirmation Bias

?????????Most of us have had this experience: we are stubbornly pushing forward with a decision or toward a goal based on a gut feeling, ignoring the advice and warnings of concerned others and discounting any evidence that doesn’t support our desires.  Then, when things go wrong, we don’t want to think or talk about it – we’d rather put it out of our minds like it never happened.

In American culture, we value passion and persistence.  We love stories of people who charge single-mindedly toward their goals, never giving up, come what may.  Some of our favorite movies are the ones in which the hero beats the odds and achieves the dream despite the cards stacked against them.

However, passion is a strong emotion and feelings are not facts.  So when we act on strong emotion, our behavior is often not wisdom based.  Mike Rowe of the television show Dirty Jobs is quoted as saying:

Follow your passion is routinely dispensed as though its wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all.  Its not… Staying the course only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction.  Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.”

Let us consider another type of hero.  In the movie The Matrix, the protagonist Neo is given a choice.

  • red pill = truth, authenticity, reality, wisdom, unknown, risk, doubt, questions

  • blue pill = fantasy, known, safety, familiarity, ignorance, denial, obscuration

Many of us never even consider the red pill because we either ignore or fail to recognize our own true nature and the true nature of reality.  We cling to concepts we’ve picked up along the way that appeal to us or that we’ve bought into and we desperately try to escape from or fight off things that we perceive as aversive.  This leads to various mental afflictions (anxiety, craving, anger, jealousy, greed, depression, hate, conceit, delusion, denial) and unskillful actions (hurting ourselves or other people) that cause us to go round and round in a cycle of ignorance and unnecessary suffering.

In The Matrix, Morpheus says to Neo, “You have to understand that many people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”  There is a theory that confirmation bias happens because we are social more than we are rational.  We are biased toward information that supports our preconceived notions so we can better argue our point, persuade others, and get our way.  In addition, we tend to be more confident in our own judgments than reality warrants.  A number of experiments have shown this to be true.

We have all heard about debunked beliefs like the flat earth theory and that the earth is the center of the universe.  These theories made perfect sense in their day because that is how things appeared to us.  We tend to trust our senses.  We rely on our senses to take in information so we can make decisions, but our senses are quite fallible.  They are vulnerable to illusions that distort reality.  For example, the human eye can detect only a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and our visual field is limited.  Our brains automatically fill in the missing details and this can lead to mistaken assumptions.  Our ears can be fooled into thinking certain tones sound lower or higher, even though they are the same or the opposite – see a demonstration of Shepard’s Tone to experience this first hand.  Our psychological states can be influenced by smells.  Used car dealerships sometimes use “new car scent” in their vehicles because it improves sales.  Even when we rely on the confluence of several of our senses, we can be fooled.  Watch this video of the Rubber Hand Illusion to see how this can happen.

Despite the fact that our senses are fallible, we often respond to them instinctively and without hesitation.

Our understanding of reality is constrained by our biology and the limits of our knowledge and technology.  Imagine how the world looks to your dog.  Fido’s limited color vision, the proximity of his head to the ground, his independently moving ears, and his incredible sense of smell all influence what he notices, how he takes in information from the environment, and how he responds to stimuli.  In addition, his relatively short life gives him less time to learn from experience.  The same is true for human beings.  Much of what is learned and experienced in a lifetime is lost when we die.  Even when we record things, the next generation repeats many of the mistakes of the past because each must learn by their own experience.  So, we inch only very slowly toward wisdom.

So, what is to be done if you ARE willing to consider the red pill?  You have to allow yourself to question long-held assumptions and beliefs about self, others and all of existence.  You have to be willing to look more closely at your gut reactions and suspend judgment long enough to become more of a curious observer.  However, in order to be able to do this, you have to first learn to quiet the body and mind so that you can pause from the cycle of grasping and pushing away long enough to think.  Many people will decide this is too much hard work and will prefer to remain in the dream.  They are not ready to be “unplugged”.

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