“People who think they’re always right are almost always wrong. People who are always willing to consider the possibility they’re wrong tend to be right much more often,” says associate psychology professor Sven Van de Wetering.
It is this basic conundrum that Van de Wetering wanted to explore in a course he’s designing — one that looks at ideological biases from a psychological perspective. Heuristics, Biases and Critical Thinking, will be available in Winter 2019 and Van de Wetering sat down with the College of Arts blog to talk about his inspiration for this new offering.
“We know a huge amount about how we, as human beings, fool ourselves,” says Van de Wetering. In fact, he says, there is no shortage of psychological literature on the topic and he recently found a book that listed 99 different biases, which he says isn’t even complete.
What isn’t discussed as much is how to recognize these biases in your own thinking and how to account for this not only in research, but in day-to-day discussions.
One of the things that led him to the topic is a recent crisis in his field of social psychology, where liberal thinkers have been accused of shutting out their more conservative-minded colleagues. Van de Wetering was at first determined to do some research into this question, but eventually he and his research assistant, Flora Oswald realized that what social psychologists really need is more help identifying their biases from the outset. He considered developing a workshop for his peers, but decided that those who chose to attend such a program were probably already aware of the need to take other perspectives into account.
“Maybe, what I need to do instead, is catch them young,” he told himself.
Fortunately, Van de Wetering, who has been teaching psychology at UFV for 20 years and has access to a new crop of students every semester, is in a good position to do this. Encouraged by Oswald, he came up with a 13-week course in about 20 minutes. Still he wasn’t sure how interested students would be in the idea of studying their own prejudices and biases, so he offered a prototype in winter 2018. The response, he said, was overwhelming.
Moving away from the typical lecture format, Van de Wetering asked students to do a great deal of reading ahead of time and then to spend class time discussing real-world issues through the lens of various biases. Issues like: should there be a ban on pit-bulls? (an interesting topic, but one Van de Wetering says he’ll probably never use again, as it was too inconclusive.)
Van de Wetering also made it clear from the outset that the students would have input into the way the class ran.
“Just about my first line . . . was ‘I am not the only smart person in the room. I’m counting on you guys to help me figure out what it is we’re actually doing to think critically in this course,’” he said.
Students, he says, loved being so involved. “I think I’ve touched a nerve – I think I’m offering something that they really, really want: relevance and an active role in the overall design of the course.”
With algorithms constantly directing content on our social media channels to things we’ve shown interest in before, Van de Wetering thinks a class about biases is particularly relevant today.
“If you are actually seeking the truth, having people echoing your prejudices back to you is not a good thing,” he says. “You want people to challenge you even if it turns out that they’re ultimately wrong.”
A Few Examples of Cognitive Biases
- Confirmation Bias: Favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
- Halo Effect: Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about his or her character. This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate their other qualities.
- Self-Serving Bias: The tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. When you win a poker hand it is due to your skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds, while when you lose it is due to getting dealt a poor hand.
- Narrative bias (from Van de Wetering): The tendency, when one has embraced a narrative that can be used to explain a certain group of facts, to ignore facts and possibilities that do not cohere with that narrative.