Feeling judgemental? Think twice

The fiction of facts: how intuition dominates proof in just about every measure of our worldview

How and why do we take sides?
Joe Hyams
On 17 October 2012 15:52

What are the primary factors in how people form opinions and conclusions? Which has more impact in a person’s judgment or evaluation: intuition or reason? Importantly, how can we integrate the answers to these questions when communicating for Israel?

I've long been troubled by those who seem impervious to reason. Not least because so many intelligent, educated, and pragmatic individuals appear to be over represented among the unreasonable. Consider for example the pro-Israel advocacy community, facing off against (no less intelligent) collegiate peers who in response will level fact after stat after proof in defence of a position they feel passionate about.

And passions, as parents of teenagers will testify, trump a reality check.

At HonestReporting, we are often dumbfounded at how blind to logic some commentators can be. As if living under a rock during a Hamas missile assault on Israel last year, some media led their coverage with Israel’s attempts to prevent continued attacks by firing on terrorists and their weapons caches.

Those journalists inverted the chronology of events to the point that a news consumer would reasonably infer that Israel fired at targets in Gaza, which met with a response of rocket fire on Israel’s civilians.

Why Israel might have wished to do such a thing out of the blue is lost on me. But to those who hold a deep commitment to the idea that Israel is the natural aggressor, there are few questions. We met this period of news coverage with a headline of our own titled "It all started when Israel fired back".

How, and why, might such flawed positions survive the scrutiny of so many?

Reason, and reasonability, seems to play a far smaller role in resolving conflicting viewpoints than many of us would like to believe. Passion, conviction, and intuition seem to stump those of us trying to make a calm, rational presentation of the facts to those who have yet to see the bigger picture. Their own picture remains somehow more compelling to them, irrespective of proof and evidence laid at their feet. Why?

And what if us rationalists too are influenced (maybe even driven) by some intuitive biases that lead us to focus in on evidence that supports our view?

The truth is (pun intended) that we are all subject to many biases and complex drives.

I've enjoyed (and been troubled by) the findings set forth in Daniel Khaneman’s recent best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Khaneman is an Israeli-American psychologist and winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Along with Amos Tversky and others, he established a cognitive basis for human errors, many of which we will each recognize in ourselves, and the world as it impacts us every day.  

It is uncomfortable to learn just how easily we are manipulated by those out to sell to us. Think about it – how often do you really make a purchase, or choose a course of action based on the data alone? Emotion, we are aware, drives our decision process in almost every evaluative experience, though we enjoy, to varying degrees, taking pride in our logical, rational arrival to that point of conclusion, choice or purchase.

Could it be that we feel the need to think we are pure rationalists?

The field of study and debate concerning subjective reasoning straddles both philosophy and psychology as witnessed by way of healthy exchanges across the New York Times blogs of late. Opinion and counter-opinion concerning the weight of rationality in judgment centres on a new book by Jonathan Haidt titled The Righteous Mind. To get a taste for Haidt’s thrust, consider, in his own words:

“We effortlessly and intuitively ‘see that’ something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or ‘reasons why,’ which we can give to others.  Both processes are crucial for understanding belief and persuasion”

Haidt is responding to an earlier challenge by Michael P. Lynch (Author of In Praise of Reason) to some of his conclusions in demoting the weight of reason, versus intuition or conviction to drive judgment.

Lynch explains:

“Often ‘reasoning’ really seems to be post-hoc rationalization: we tend to accept that which confirms what we already believe (psychologists call this confirmation bias). And the tendency goes beyond just politics. When people are told that they scored low on an I.Q. test, for example, they are more likely to read scientific articles criticizing such tests; when they score high, they are more likely to read articles that support the tests. They are more likely to favor the ‘evidence,’ in other words, that makes them feel good. This is what Haidt calls the ‘wag the dog’ illusion: thinking that reason is the tail that wags the dog of value judgment.”

However, continues Lynch

“ think about how Haidt’s view applies to itself. The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons. So if those reasons convince me that his theory is true, then reasons can play a role in judgment — contra the theory”

So is there merit in being attuned to these philosophical tangles? If you care about freedom from undue influence in your decision making, then yes.  Doubly so if you care about the way Israel comes over in the news. I’ll take a look at why, more closely in part two.

Part two

In part one I asked whether information or intuition plays a greater role in our decision making process.  And does it matter?

Popular reading in the behavioral sciences, rationality, risk, decision making, and so forth all make for great weekend reading, but deserve higher priority than mere popular pastime interest.

We should realize that the choices we make, and those made for us might well be the outcome of variables not as tightly controlled as we'd like to believe. We should at the very least be cognizant of the impact of these forces upon our every waking (and often subconscious) judgments. This is a serious business, to which most of us are blind. And we are the worse off for our lack of awareness.

What if you have far less freedom in the choices you make than you like to believe? Would you want to minimize the impact of extraneous forces impacting your conclusions and judgments?

After all, who doesn't feel uneasy about learning, as Kahneman points out, that our minds seek to affirm claims and events as presented to us (if not wildly unreasonable at face value) and struggles to entertain alternatives once a scenario has been established in a primary light?

In context – for HonestReporting works as a Media Watchdog – no correction can purge first sentiment experienced by a news consumer. Worse still, all future exposure to a given news subject or arena will be primed to bias, however open the individual considers his or herself to a fresh story. The further entrenched a news reader’s view of actors in oft-repeated news subjects, the more anchored they become in expectation of who is to blame, who stands to suffer, who is the cause, and who is the victim of conflict.

For Israel, our predicament is compounded by several heuristics described by Kahneman. Take for example the Availability Heuristic (the process of judging frequency by "the ease with which instances come to mind").

High profile news that exposes us to strong emotional imagery such as a plane wreck will lead us to overestimate the incidence of accidental deaths in the general population. The cognitive ease you'll experience arriving at a conclusion of safe versus dangerous travel when recalling those images will lead many to consider travel by car a safer choice. And they'd be very, very wrong.

So why is the risk for bias so extraordinarily high when it comes to Israel?

Consider now images of children bleeding in their parents’ arms, like the false photo tweet posted by a (now suspended, thanks to HR’s work here) UN Employee earlier this year. When news consumers around the world are primed, so deeply and intuitively, to see Israel as aggressor, can we better understand why facts and reason won't bring instant change?

After all, if experiential evidence demonstrates that a particular screen saver can prime you to desire one thing or avoid another, trust a brand or develop an exaggerated view of just about anything – then why do we have a hard time accepting that our demonstrations of Israel’s just actions are lost on those with deeply rooted positions to in the opposite direction?

Does awareness stand to make a difference? Can we do much about it?

I recognise many of the biases described and debated by the great minds mentioned above. We are all familiar with the concept of jumping to a conclusion. I find these advances in cognitive and behavioral science enlightening and yet frustrating, given that a broader awareness of propensity to error is missing from the world of journalism, media, education, politics, and too many other fields.

Is there merit to integrating decision process awareness to Israel communications? Where might we start?

We should wish to be aware of the behavioral forces in play when we head out to vote, to purchase, to debate. I think we can do better, to improve the integrity of decisions and judgments made in the context of all things Israel.

The marketing and communications industries have a healthy grasp of tools and levers that direct or impinge the actions, choices, as well as conclusions of an audience.  I would like to call journalists and news professionals to join me in integrating an appreciation for these real factors impacting our work to our everyday endeavors.

Why? Because as Daniel Kahneman demonstrated, the very act of conscious focus on the influences impacting your thought processes can mitigate some of the error likely to result in particular categories of bias.

Thought science is showing us up for how little we have control of our judgments. We shouldn't despair however. Our minds are lazy but, when directed to consciousness of a given bias, seem able to counter some of the negative effects.

Conflict in particular, where both parties over estimate their contribution and overly discredit their opponent, stands to benefit from awareness of the issue as a means to limit the influence thereof. Media has the chance to play a supportive role in bridging gaps of understanding. They need simply to consider the psychology in play when going about news coverage of Israel, the Middle East and beyond.

There is no neutral role for media to play.

The consequence of suffering inappropriate influence to judgment matters in every facet of our lives. Media carry an extra burden of responsibility in this regard. Self-awareness and looking out for systemic bias is hard work. But we must make doing so a priority. Prevention is better than cure, because in the example of media bias, a correction, even when equally prominent as the error, can not reverse many of the judgments forged in the readers mind.

The harm is cumulative, and Israel, no less than professional journalism, suffers in proportion to the volume of news stories generated. That volume and misplaced focus on Israel increases as technology drives media ever faster.

We need an appreciation for the communications psychology that stands to trip all parties up in making progress toward common goals. Those shared goals become fewer as the biases and ill-formed judgments deepen.

We need to approach all that we care about from news accuracy, domestic politics, to national ambitions for peace with honesty, integrity, and a genuine desire to know that we are informed, and informing to the very best of our abilities.

Joe Hyams is CEO of HonestReporting, an organization aimed at defending Israel against media bias through education and action

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