Thomas Gilovich

How do we prevent the occasional acceptance of faulty reasoning and erroneous beliefs from influencing our habits of thought more generally? Thinking straight about the world is a precious and difficult process that must be carefully nurtured. By attempting to turn our critical intelligence off and on at will, we risk losing it altogether, and thus jeopardize our ability to see the world clearly. Furthermore, by failing to fully develop our critical faculties, we become susceptible to the arguments and exhortations of those with other than benign intentions. In the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “When people learn no tools of judgement and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.” As individuals and as a society, we should be less accepting of superstition and sloppy thinking, and should strive to develop those “habits of mind” that promote a more accurate view of the world.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Gilovich

  1. shinichi Post author

    When examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see, and conclude what they expect to conclude. Information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs is often accepted at face value, whereas evidence that contradicts them is critically scrutinized and discounted. Our beliefs may thus be less responsive than they should to the implications of new information.

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    The underlying causes of faulty reasoning and erroneous beliefs will never be eliminated. People will always prefer black and white over shades of gray, and so there will always be the temptation to hold overly-simplified beliefs and to hold them with excessive confidence. People will always be tempted by the idea that everything that happens to them is controllable.

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    What we believe is heavily influenced by what we think others believe. We favor or oppose experimentation with sex, drugs, and various other “lifestyle” practices in part because of what we think other people think, or do, about these matters.

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    Asked to assess the similarity of two entities, people pay more attention to the ways in which they are similar than to the ways in which they differ. Asked to assess dissimilarity, they become more concerned with differences than with similarities. In other words, when testing a hypothesis of similarity, people look for evidence of similarity rather than dissimilarity, and when testing a hypothesis of dissimilarity, they do the opposite. The relationship one perceives between two entities, then, can vary with the precise form of the question that is asked.

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    We humans seem to be extremely good at generating ideas, theories, and explanations that have the ring of plausibility. We may be relatively deficient, however, in evaluating and testing our ideas once they are formed. One of the biggest impediments to doing so is our failure to realize that when we do not precisely specify the kind of evidence that will count as support for our position, we can end up “detecting” too much evidence for our preconceptions.

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    For desired conclusions, in other words, it is as if we ask ourselves, “Can I believe this?”, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, “Must I believe this?” The evidence required for affirmative answers to these two questions are enormously different. By framing the question in such ways, however, we can often believe what we prefer to believe, and satisfy ourselves that we have an objective basis for doing so.

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    Even more important, however, is that even when we do cross paths with people whose beliefs and attitudes conflict with our own, we are rarely challenged. People are generally reluctant to openly question another person’s beliefs.

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    How do we distinguish between the legitimate skepticism of those who scoffed at cold fusion, and the stifling dogma of the seventeenth century clergymen who, doubting Galileo’s claim that the earth was not the center of the solar system, put him under house arrest for the last eight years of his life? In part, the answer lies in the distinction between skepticism and closed-mindedness. Many scientists who were skeptical about cold fusion nevertheless tried to replicate the reported phenomenon in their own labs; Galileo’s critics refused to look at the pertinent data.

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