The Confirmation Bias has its Woodstock

In the landslide of comment following the death of Margaret Thatcher one remark stood out for me from Dame Mary Archer in the Telegraph

 “Dame Mary, herself a scientist by training, describes how the former prime minister drew her convictions from a mastery of “the facts”. In an interview with The Telegraph, Dame Mary said: “She always exhibited the mindset of a scientist, by which I mean her approach was evidence-based, a wish to understand things thoroughly, never to skate over the surface.” “Many distinguished politicians would go on gut and instinct, which isn’t the scientific way. Baroness Thatcher was different.”

 Recall that Baroness Thatcher, despite her scientific training, failed to spot that she lived in a society, so I am uncertain about the scientific acuteness that she could have brought to any assessment of “the facts”.  Mrs Thatcher’s degree in chemistry may have taught her the scientific method as it applies to atoms and molecules but her spectacular failure to spot were she lived (in a society) suggests that Thatcher, like all other politicians couldn’t escape, what Mary Archer calls “gut and instinct” but which this blog is going to call Moral Intuitions.  The reason I suspect that Mary Archer thought Mrs T’s political analysis to be exceptionally scientific was that she broadly shares her own Moral Intuitions and therefore inherits a similar confirmation bias.

Warren Buffet gave a succinct description of the phenomenon:

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact”.

Haidt (The Righteous Mind) is not the author of the Confirmation Bias by any means but he sets it in the context of his theory of moral intuitions, and it is his claim that these intuitions are spectacles from which we look out and see the world.   Haidt takes this old idea, but adds it into the coalitional psychology upon which politics is founded.  The interaction of this Binding (coalitional psychology) allows the confirmation bias, to apply as if it is hyper-charged with mass, simultaneous, coordinated “Blinding”.  So he has the notion that Politics can Bind and Blind us.

I prefer the description of motivated social cognition rather than the Confirmation Bias, with the social being the set of social facts that it is possible to see, the motivated being the subset of social facts that it anyone is motivated to process via our intuitions, and the cognition is that way that we process it.  If you fail to see that you are in a society then your Confirmation Bias is working just fine.

The obituaries and commentary around the death and legacy of Thatcher are the Woodstock moment of the Confirmation Bias with TV/Radio and newspapers, panelists and interviewees and interviewers able to dumbfound each other, the one capable of leaving the other open mouthed in disbelief that they could be discussing the same subject.  The other day on the BBC the Tory Cecil Parkinson winced in shock to be reminded that Mrs T was able to pay for mass unemployment with North Sea Oil money (he recalled a short temporary elevated level), and the Labour Peer Helena Kennedy was speechless to hear that tax had been reduced from 83% to 40% and that Price and Exchange controls had been abolished (the relevance exchange controls for goodness sake).

The violence in the differing perspectives: saviour of the Nation – The Prime Minister, an evil woman – Ann Scargill.  The Economist – Freedom Fighter, The Scottish Daily Record “£130bn of Scottish Wealth axed”.  There was a claim that she had saved £75bn in obtaining a rebate from the EU, who knew?  Well her acolyte William Hague knew alright and was able to recall this from memory.

A veritable Glastonbury then of Confirmation Bias with the Economist headlining on the main stage and left blogs playing to the more sophisticated types on the cooler but more obscure stages.  Something then about the Economist’s dedication to dispassionate rationality affords it this pride of place at the top of the bill.  Haidt’s intuitive model would assert that all this clever reasoning, all this rationalisation has a purpose: to disguise the fact that Thatcher and the Economist share the same Moral Intuitions.


What exactly were Thatcher’s Moral Intuitions?  I will blog about this shortly….

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