Why do people disregard evidence of injustice?

Posted: September 20, 2011 in Ethical decision-making
Tags: , , , , ,
Human Brain Evolution

Image by hawkexpress via Flickr

Leo Tolstoy once said:

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself

Pretty deep. In what ways can our own thinking sabotage our attempts to bring about positive change in the world? Here are two which fit with Tolstoy’s sentiments:

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to favour information that confirms our preconceptions. Somewhere near the top of most people’s preconceptions is “I am a nice person”. Our train of thought goes something like this:

  1. I am a nice person.
  2. Nice people don’t buy goods manufactured in slave-like conditions (or in some cases outright slavery).
  3. Therefore the phenomenon must either be imagined or else unavoidable.
  4. In either case, I needn’t change my behaviour.

The existence of scandalous labour conditions also runs counter to the widespread belief that globalisation and the free-market will improve people’s lives. This belief may well be true but unfortunately that doesn’t stop the abuses around the world from being real. A person with single-minded faith in free markets might discard such uncomfortable facts when presented with them.

Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges.

~ Academics Lee Ross and Craig Anderson

Human beings don’t like to hold conflicting thoughts in our minds. If forced, we will either rationalise the conflict or else we discount or ignore the newer thought which causes the conflict. Of the two, ignoring certainly requires less effort at the end of a long day. Rationalisation might be no better if it simply amounts to ‘explaining away’ awkward facts.

Confirmation bias can be reduced by confronting it head on. Think of some groups you feel antipathy towards, the ones that niggle you whenever you see them mentioned online or in the paper. Try to step outside your bias and consider that there might be something useful or helpful in what they have to say.

I put this to the test last year when I decided to read the uber-libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged, revered by people I often disagree with. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Established Impressions

Established impressions is a variant of this bias, relating to individuals. If I think Bob is a ‘nice guy’, it will take a longer-than-average time for me to believe that he has embezzled money from the company in the face of evidence that he has.

Similarly, if we think our suppliers and field staff are nice folks (and why wouldn’t we?) we might not be inclined to ask too many questions about how they are carrying out their jobs.

I suggest we ought to be a little more prudent and a little less concerned with hurting people’s feelings. Just ask Disney or Mattel or a hundred others what can happen if you don’t ask too many questions of your suppliers.

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