April 9, 2003

Betting on All the Horses


By Paul Nesselroade

An often-studied phenomenon in social-cognitive psychology is the tendency for partisan observers to interpret new information as supporting what they already hold to be true. For instance, both those who ardently support an armed conflict with Iraq and those who vigorously oppose it have no doubt found a great deal of information to support their belief since the conflict has begun.

One reason we can be so impervious to belief change is our inability to see that we employ contradictions in interpreting the meaning of new information. By contradictions I mean two or more incongruent statements about what is to be expected or how things are to work, either of which can be called upon as necessary to provide further after-the-fact rationale in support of our beliefs. Although either statement might reflect sound reasoning and could be harnessed to show that we were “right all along,” they can’t both be evidence in support of one’s belief simultaneously. That’s like saying, “heads I win; tails I win.” However, since only one event is realized at a time we have only to explain that one event and not its opposite. With our attention focused squarely on the event that actually happens, only the corresponding rationale comes to mind and our pre-existing belief appears bolstered.

Although people are often unaware they use contradictions for belief propping, this mode of thinking is practiced by most of us on a daily basis and it can even be found in some of culture’s larger ideas. For example look at classical Freudian psychology. It has been heavily criticized for this kind of reasoning. By appealing to the possibility of unconscious motives and repression, a therapist can interpret virtually any subsequent behavior as consistent with a previously pronounced diagnosis. If the client expresses awkward sexual feelings for her son-in-law, this can be taken at face value as evidence of sexual interest. If, however, she fails to express her feelings, then she can be said to be repressing her desires. Believing in the authenticity of both conscious and unconscious motives makes it possible to account for either the presence or absence of expressed sexual interest. In fact, in the mind of the believing therapist either outcome can be seen as corroborating the diagnosis.

Or take the Freudian concept of “reaction formation.” This mental tool is theorized to protect the ego from harmful or disturbing unconscious thoughts by making the conscious expression just the opposite. So, latent feelings of hatred for one’s mother could be expressed consciously as feelings of love for her or behaviorally as acts of kindness toward her. Armed with this device, then, a Freudian therapist’s diagnosis is immunized against dissent. After all, any apparently contrary evidence displayed by the client can be chalked up to the workings of this defense mechanism – all the more evidence in support of the diagnosis. It’s like betting on all the horses and then declaring ourselves clairvoyant when we get a payout.

A parallel can be made to Darwinian evolution, as it often embraces multiple competing outcomes and then interprets any evidence as support for the theory. One example would be the two-horse race of explaining biological order. If what we see is exquisite, then we are reminded of the degree of fine-tuning that the selection/mutation mechanism can reach when given enough time, but if there appears to be a flaw or if the form seems crude, then we are reminded that we are working with a blind and purposeless mechanism - after all what can we expect? Armed with both explanations, every possible outcome has been successfully accounted for and so nothing appears surprising. Is there any doubt, then, why you never hear a Darwinian say; “Now if I saw that, I’d know it was designed”? Design conclusions are ruled out ahead of time by putting a Darwinian bet on every horse.

Another origins horse race has to do with explaining phenotypes. But is there any phenotype for which a purported selection advantage cannot be imagined? If we see bright plumage, we point to the reproductive advantage of the owner, but if we see camouflage, we point to the immediate selection benefit of concealment. If the organism is small, better to hide, if it is big, then it has fewer predators. Granted, any of these as well as millions of others could, in fact, be true and partially explain why a specific organism exists in its current state. However actually establishing this can be devilishly difficult - just look at the peppered moth fiasco (e.g., Hooper, 2002). And furthermore, do these observations really allow us to say anything meaningful about the kind of phenotypes that evolution would predict? Given our plethora of after-the-fact potential Darwinian explanations, we can seem to predict them all, and so any outcome sits well with us and manages to arrive in our minds as "just what we’d expect." What kind of feature could even be imagined that could not be explained by appealing to some form of a selection advantage? From a Darwinian perspective every horse is a winner, who finishes first in any given phenotype race is just a detail.

Of course Darwinists are not the only violators here. Everyone is susceptible to this kind of thinking. My point is that pre-existing beliefs are powerful organizing forces that can infiltrate the collective thought of even some of culture’s biggest ideas. If unchecked, beliefs can coerce us into using data as drunks use lampposts – more for support than illumination. And if we are not careful these beliefs will insulate us from assessing them fairly – sometimes by tricking us into betting on all the horses.

Hooper, J. (2002). Of moths and men: An evolutionary tale. Norton: New York.

Dr. Nesselroade is Associate Professor of Psychology at Asbury College in Kentucky. Readers are welcome to respond to this column at the ARN Discussion Forum.

Copyright 2003 Paul Nesselroade. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 04.09.03