Ideological Bias

Intense commitment for religious, political or philosophical ideas create an ideological bias. Charlie Munger gave a commencement speech at USC law school in 2007. In the speech he recommends avoiding ideological bias completely. Why? Intense ideology will ruin our mind. Excerpt from the speech

Another thing to avoid is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. You see a lot of it in the worst of the TV preachers. They have different, intense, inconsistent ideas about technical theology, and a lot of them have minds reduced to cabbage. And that can happen with political ideology. And if you’re young, it’s particularly easy to drift into intense and foolish political ideology and never get out. When you announce that you’re a loyal member of some cult-like group and you start shouting out the orthodox ideology, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in. You’re ruining your mind, sometimes with starling speed. So you want to be careful with intense ideology. It presents a big danger for the only mind you’re ever going to have.

Here is the video of the speech. Ideology part starts from 4:06 minutes

Examples of intense ideologies

Heavy ideology is one of the most extreme distorters of human cognition. From the book Seeking Wisdom

Charlie Munger tells us about the danger of ideology: Look at these Islamic Fundamentalists who just gunned down a bunch of Greek tourists shouting, “God’s work!”

Ideology is a form of commitment and consistency. Once you pound it in your head it is very hard to get away with that. You will always looks for evidence that favors your ideology. If you come across a disconfirming evidence you get into cognitive dissonance. Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions.

You cannot be in this state for a very long time. You resolve it by dismissing the disconfirming evidence. Thus you will hold your ideology forever. In the book Mistakes Were Made the author discusses about an experiment conducted on capital punishment (death penalty).

In one experiment, researchers selected people who either favored or opposed capital punishment and asked them to read two scholarly, well documented articles on the emotionally charged issue of whether the death penalty deters violent crimes. One article concluded that it did; the other that it didn’t. If the readers were processing information rationally, they would at least realize that the issue is more complex than they had previously believed and would therefore move a bit closer to each other in their beliefs about capital punishment as a deterrence. But dissonance theory predicts that the readers would find a way to distort the two articles. They would find reasons to clasp the confirming article to their bosoms, hailing it as a highly competent piece of work. And they would be supercritical of the disconfirming article, finding minor flaws and magnifying them into major reasons why they need not be influenced by it.

Tetanus, or lockjaw is a serious infection caused by a bacteria which produce a toxin that affects the brain and nervous system. The toxin leads to stiffness in the jaw muscles as well as other muscles. During the epidemic, the Sudanese villagers of Nuer And Dinka Tribes, begun extracting the front tooth of all their children, so that if they get tetanus later, the adults would be able to feed the children with liquids. With the help of tetanus vaccine the number of incidents have come down drastically. But still the villagers keep removing the teeth. Excerpt from the book Mistakes Were Made

But this is a painful thing to do to children, especially since only some would become afflicted. To further justify their actions, to themselves and their children, the villagers would need to bolster the decision by adding benefits to the procedure after the fact. For example, they might convince themselves that pulling teeth has aesthetic value – say, that sunken-chin look is really quite attractive – and they might even turn the surgical ordeal into a rite of passage into adulthood. And, indeed, that is just what happened. “The toothless look is beautiful,” the villagers say. “People who have all their teeth are ugly: They look like cannibals who would eat a person. A full set of teeth makes a man look like a donkey.”

Warren Buffett avoids ideology

Charlie Munger tells that

Warren adored his father – who was a wonderful man. But he was a very heavy ideologue, (right wing, it happened to be), who hung around with other very heavy ideologues, (right wing, naturally). Warren observed this as a kid. And he decided that ideology was dangerous – and that he was going to stay a long way from it. And he has throughout his whole life. That has enormously helped the accuracy of his cognition.

How to avoid it?

Charlie Munger uses the following technique to keep himself sane and not drift towards extreme ideology.

I have what I call in “iron prescription” that helps me keep sane when I drift toward preferring one intense ideology over another. I feel that I’m not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition. I think that I am qualified to speak only when I’ve reached that state.

Hence it is very important to not have extreme ideologies

The business of not drifting into extreme ideology is very, very important in life. If you want to end up wise, heavy ideology is very likely to prevent that outcome.

Do not believe anything blindly and it is better to live with doubt. Learning from Richard Feynman definitely helps.


2 thoughts on “Ideological Bias

  1. Something to ponder:
    “Do not believe anything blindly and it is better to live with doubt.”

    Should you believe that fully or live with doubt about that statement too? This post is essentially relativism wrapped up on a cloak.
    If intense commitment to an ideology is bad, is an intense commitment to the ideology of not having an intense commitment bad too?

    The real question is – “What is truth?”

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