Cognitive Bias, Conformational Bias, & Applied Behavior Analysis

My son readily accepts the theory of cognitive bias, since the bias is testable and comprehensible as a evolutionary developed trait. However, he feels that in order for a human to have a confirmation bias, the bias must be explainable according to the scientific discipline called, Behaviorism. I never had given the matter much thought but had accepted “confirmation bias” because it seemed to fit my experience of dealing with others, and because I had “learned” to think of the idea as true as a result of promotional efforts and/or because “everyone else believed.” However, what if confirmation bias isn’t as automatic and genetically determined as a sneeze?

What if so called confirmation bias is really an effect of cognitive bias?

Earlier we discussed how the fear evoked during the flight or fight response results in a cognitive bias in regard to the “thing” that evoked the fear. Even when the fear is later realized as unjustified, some of the bias remains. In evolutionary terms, “Tis better to fear something that is no threat to survival than to have no fear of something that is a threat.” This bias can extend into human belief systems.

In other words, schedules of reinforcement may not be necessary to cause a person to have a particular conformational bias. The bias may be the result of the individual “learning” of one or more terrible “threats,” and then being offered one or more solutions to avoid the threat/s. The cognitive bias caused by fear and the sense of security offered by the “solution” could result in the individual having confirmation bias in regard to the “solution.” One other factor may be involved.

During much of our recent evolutionary history–if not nearly all of our evolutionary history–our prehuman ancestors were social animals. We still carry the genes and the inevitable genetic tendencies that result in us having cognitive bias in regard to group existence. Parents often recognize this bias and ask their adolescents, “Would you jump off a cliff if all the other kids were doing it?” The interaction of individuals with other individuals and in regard to their collective co-existence–irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary–is primarily the result of our cognitive bias for group existence.

Bear in mind that evolution didn’t design brains that could discriminate fact from fantasy, since little or no fantasy existed in our evolutionary past. Fantasy only became part of human life after language reached the necessary complexity to produce the fantasies of vivid imaginations. In fact, so called, “human intuition” can be fooled because the unconscious brain–the part of the brain that intuition bubbles up into consciousness from–has trouble discriminating fact from fantasy. And, of course, the intuition could be another contributor to confirmation bias.


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