Daily Archives: June 16, 2011

The Unreliable "Feeling of Certainty"

What most people do not know is that certainty is a feeling. It’s probably on the same level as jealousy or anger. It’s a reaction to certain stimuli. Yet just like anger, the stimulus doesn’t have to actually exist to create the feeling. Imagine your significant other cheating on you, or imagine someone you love crying or getting injured. These scenarios are not true yet the feeling we get when we imagine it is no less real.

Check this out. I will give you the “feeling of knowing” right now:

A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.

Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort (my emphasis) of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense (my emphasis) of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infuesed with a feeling of knowing.

Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. Suppose I tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presense of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.

On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not pp5-6

Notice the words that I bolded. Discomfort. Pleasing. Certainty feels good. By implication, because certainty feels good, people can get addicted to it. Thus there is no logical connection between a person’s feeling of certainty and something that is actually true. Just like you can feel sad or angry about just imagining something terrible happening to someone you care about. This feeling of knowing can probably manifest itself just to rid the person of that discomfort of not knowing.  

This feeling of certainty can appear when there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever, and fail to register when evidence is overwhelming. Obviously, because it’s just a feeling. It’s subject to all of our cognitive baggage just like all of our other emotions. Just like “getting angry” is subject to all of our cognitive baggage; many people have gotten angry first and then looked for things to be angry about. Either with their spouse, job, or anything. Certainty is subject to the same disconnect with reality, and subject to the same rationalizations as any other emotion. The thing is, Christianity has no other strong evidence other than this feeling of knowing!

To strengthen this, there’s a personality trait called the “Need For Closure”. From here:

Enter the Need for Closure. This psychological trait is defined in five parts, as follows:

(1) ‘desire definite order and structure in their lives and abhor unconstrained chaos and disorder’ (preference for order);

(2) ‘would experience as aversive situations devoid of closure’ (discomfort with ambiguity);

(3) desire a secure or stable knowledge, that means ‘a knowledge that can be relied across circumstances and is unchallenged by exceptions or disagreements’ (preference for predictability);

(4) ‘do not desire that their knowledge is confronted by alternative opinions or inconsistent evidence’ (close-mindedness); and

(5) feel ‘an urgency of striving for closure in judgment and decision-making’ (decisiveness) (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994, p. 1050).

One of the first indications that we’re on the right track is that Need for Closure is negatively associated with Need for Cognition. That is, people who are drawn towards active critical thought and problem solving are unlikely to like “set in stone” answers. They tend to dislike dogma and prefer to pursue evidence until and unless they reach a suitable conclusion.

Second, people with high Need for Closure tend strongly to prefer any answer to no answer, so much so that there is a subconscious tendency to view someone who claims to have an answer more favorably from the start than someone who is undecided or open-minded. This tends to make them biased towards accepting claims from people with dogmatic opinions. Maybe that’s why some people can be part of dogmatic religions without scoring high on dogmatism scales.

When people are made to feel uncertain, they increase their pattern detection. So the example above with the kite, because it was a nonsense quote it made the feeling of certainty all the more intense when coming across the word “kite”: 

Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.

The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.

But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”

In other words, when you start to break down people’s sense that they understand what’s going on, they respond by turning up the ‘gain’ on pattern detection. Similar things have been seen in previous studies, except in these studies the gain detection is turned up so high that people see things that aren’t there at all.

For example, people who are made to feel like they are not in control tend to see patterns that aren’t there. And people who are made to feel lonely are more likely to anthropomorphize (i.e. see pets and even gadgets as friends).

– via Epiphenom

Combine this with Confirmation Bias and we’ve got a strong naturalistic case for why many people are religious. They aren’t aware of these cognitive and psychological biases so don’t readjust their “search for truth” to account for these things. Where in the Christian Testament does it say to be aware of being led astray by something like Confirmation Bias? The entirety of Christian philosophy assumes that these biases don’t exist. As a matter of fact, most religions actually feed off of these psychological and cognitive errors in human reasoning in order to strengthen their hold on the believer.

It’s probably no coincidence that professionals who are intimately aware of and deal with these biases on a daily basis are the least religious.


Posted by on June 16, 2011 in cognitive science

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