Whispers in your ear

They’re always with you

They tell you important things: What is right or wrong, what is true or false. What you should accept or reject.  They are whispers in your ear, as if spoken by a spirit on your shoulder. And you believe them.

We all have them. They’re steering our thoughts, leading our conclusions. It’s hard to say if they’re more like angels or demons, but your whisperer’s purpose is your overall victory, one way or another. Victory in all you do, against all who oppose you. There are many different whisperers, just as there are many different types of people and they have distinct personalities.

Let’s say you’re sitting next to a stranger on a train, traveling to another state. It’s going to be a long trip, and the stranger starts a conversation as the train departs from the station. It begins pleasant and light where nobody reveals much of themselves. You talk about the weather. Chit chat.

This continues for a while, but eventually you move on to expressing opinions and personal views. Comments about the weather turn into comments on global warming and climate change. The conversation moves into politics, with hints of religious beliefs or the lack thereof.  By that point, your whisperer is awake, attentive and active. Worried that the conversation could affect your overall paradigm, it drops comments known only to you. Whispers, intended to keep you on track. It understands you need help staying strong and sticking to your guns. You mustn’t be persuaded, because you’ve worked hard to build a belief system that works for you. There are too many things in the world to know them all, and you’ve built a system from the knowledge you do have. And with it, you have found a way to be strong and face the world. Your whisperer is not about to let the vehement opinions of a stranger derail it all. Even if it has to lie to you.

For the purpose of illustration, let’s say your views are very conservative. Everything goes well in your conversation until the stranger, you know now as Ian, says…

“I can’t believe these climate change deniers. They think they can argue the factual conclusions of 99% of the world’s scientists.”

You heard it was 97%, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all bunk anyway, says your whisperer. Scientists have their own agenda it reminds you, and it’s right. But you don’t want any direct conflict with Ian and you’ve got to say something.

“Hopefully we can trust their conclusions,” you say. “Maybe what they’re mostly concerned with is their funding.” Hm, maybe that was more confrontational than intended.

Ian looks at you hard for a while, saying nothing. No doubt his own whisperer has been aroused now. Finally he speaks.

“You mean to tell me that scientists around the world have all banded together in some kind of global conspiracy about the possible fate of the world–only to keep their respective funding?” Ian says.

“Well I’m not saying that,” you reply. Your whisperer chuckles knowing that’s exactly what you’re saying. “But how do you know you can trust what they’re saying. They could have just made it up for one reason or another,” you say convincingly.

“They didn’t fabricate any numbers,” Ian says, not convinced. “Independent scientists from many different countries are completely transparent with the data that has been gathered by many different sources, and they are going to great lengths to explain their conclusions.”

There is no point in talking to him about this, your whisperer warns you. He has obviously been brainwashed by the media. Fake news. You look out the window, and see trees frosted from snow falling in the lowland mountains you’re passing into. Your whisperer chuckles again. Not much warming going on here, it points out.

“So who do you know in Colorado?” you ask Ian. Hopefully you can change the subject.

And so it goes, again and again. Social media is brimming with political commentary from everyone we know.  Many people will “un-friend” others with differing views, and they end up living in an echoing chamber, where only ideas like their own are brought up. Their whisperers exchange material until all the people they control are all synchronized like a hive mind.  They all have the same ideas and the same whispers in their ears. They all present the same arguments, with the same references and examples because they heard it from someone else who heard it from someone else within their circles.

What are these whispers, really?

They are our subconscious minds, and more specifically, our confirmation biases. And confirmation bias is a very big deal. So what exactly is it? A common behavior where people focus on information that confirms what they already believe is true, while undervaluing or ignoring information that does not confirm what they believe. Also, it’s when information is interpreted in such a way that it confirms what they already believe or want to believe is true. There are many web sites that go into great detail about confirmation bias, that are easy to find if you look for them.

It affects every aspect of our lives from our personal experiences and decisions to our interactions with others. From a case of neighbors reconciling their differences all the way up to global politics, confirmation biases shape our world. The danger of confirmation bias is that the larger the bias gets, the less objective the person (or organization) is, and that leads to faulty choices, the spread of misinformation, and conflict. In short, people become deluded about what is true and false, because of what they want to be true, and then they fight about it. Religious persecution, political disputes, wars, and heinous acts of terrorism are all results of confirmation bias. Huge conflict arises when people can’t agree on things because they aren’t all focusing on the facts and only the facts. Perhaps we could accomplish long lasting world peace if everyone could agree on an objective truth based only on facts and mutual welfare, unhindered by any bias. But that will never happen. We have whisperers, and they’re controlling us.

Is the author of this article writing with a confirmation bias? Is the reader of this article reading with a confirmation bias. Almost certainly on both accounts, which reminds me of a story.

You are the smartest person around, just like anyone.

Do you think you are the smartest person you know? Seriously. Perhaps you make an exception for an especially smart individual that you’ve met, but out of all the people you know you consider yourself to be smarter than nearly everyone, don’t you?  You feel strong as a smart person. You’re in a powerful position that gives you confidence. You often shake your head at the idiots all around you. You can’t believe how they could be so dumb.

If you do think you’re the smartest person around, well, you’re not alone. What I’ve found is that almost everybody does. Why, I remember back in my early twenties when I outright proclaimed to myself that I was the smartest person in the world. So it was a bit alarming to hear that some of my friends thought that indeed they were the smartest person in the world.  The super smarty pants that I was, recognized that was illogical. We can’t all be the smartest. And as I progressed into adulthood, I continued to analyze the subject. I would meet a lot of people, having long conversations with them as we got to know each other. I would take note if they thought they were the smartest person, which was (and still is) usually the case. Sometimes I’d even prompt them to say it in one way or another. It was easy, people love to profess how smart they are and how they are surrounded by idiots. I’ve never seen anyone taking IQ tests to prove their towering intelligence. But the truth became clear, and here’s my full conclusion.

There are exceptions, because some people are too self deprecating for this. And, we do allow for the true Einsteins of the world. But the rule stands. Pretty much everyone considers themselves smarter than everyone else. Obviously we cannot all be the smartest person in the world. But to think so is the way human beings are as a default behavior. And remember, everything we are is good, meaning we evolved to be like this for good reason. It’s part of a system that works. It gives us the advantage of confidence. And with it we boldly forge towards our victories.

I reached that conclusion long ago, and I haven’t thought about it overtly in a while. Then, when a young person in my life recently stated they were the smartest person in the world, I had a new insight. As you’ve read here, I have a lot to say to explain confirmation bias and how they permeate every aspect of our lives. But what I realized, is that thinking you are the smartest person is the first and foremost confirmation bias. So now I like to call it ‘The Original Confirmation Bias’. One that we all hold in common, and it is the mother of all confirmation biases.

Bias override

The only logical conclusion from that point forward, is to accept that what we believe is upheld by our biases. We rarely, if ever, resist what our whisperer tells us. And it’s far more difficult to see our own biases than other people’s. While they often work to our advantage, we need to constantly challenge the beliefs that we hold, by asking ourselves some routine questions:

  • Have I gathered all the facts [about the topic]?
  • Am I ignoring unpleasant or disappointing facts?
  • How do I know what I believe [about this] is true, really?
  • What does the other side of the argument say? Is their argument based in fact or is it all rhetoric and emotion?
  • When there are no applicable facts, am I filling in blanks with my imagination and assuming my internal rhetoric is true?
  • How might it serve me to strongly believe [this] if it can’t be proven?
  • Am I willing to update what I regard as true in respect to new information?
  • Are my whisperers controlling me by keeping me in the dark?

The puzzle of truth: Analyst vs. Theist

The way we see the truth about life, the universe, and everything is like building a puzzle with an unknown number of pieces. Different people go at building their puzzle in different ways.

Discerning analysts want to make sure they get as close to the objective truth as possible. They don’t want to buy into, or propagate misinformation. They take every measure to ensure that they aren’t wrong about things. That they aren’t misled to believe things that aren’t actually true. And so every bit of information they can find is another puzzle piece on the table. They are always looking for more pieces, and even before they know if the information is true, false or partially true it becomes a piece of the puzzle. Even false information and uncovered deceptions are clues about the overall picture. Science, of course, is the backbone of the puzzle. The puzzle of the discerning analyst is huge, complicated, and utterly insightful. It knows no bounds.

The goal of the Theist is to make their puzzle into the picture they want to see. They have very few pieces left on the table, because so many were impossible to fit into what they envision. With a couple swipes of their arm, they cast most puzzle pieces onto the floor, most of those are scientifically proven facts. What’s left are emotional stories, hyperbole, rhetoric, and a lot of gaps. Those gaps are easily filled in with their own creative talents, until they’ve painted the picture of their dreams. When a theist describes their view of the world, it is often inspiring, beautiful, and humbling. But let’s not forget that they left all the facts of the floor.